Reinventing 23rd Street

By Mike Aldax (with Mike Kinney)

Before ordering from the long list of fruit-and-veggie beverage options at Bionicos Yahualica on 23rd Street, Darlene Rios Drapkin was involved in a passionate discussion with the shop’s clerk in Spanish. Moments later, while awaiting our orders, Drapkin explained that the merchant had been seeking advice about persistent loitering in front of the business – one guy in particular just won’t go away. Just outside, a man was sprawled out on the sidewalk.

Him?

Drapkin nodded.

Eventually our orders were ready. They looked fresh and homemade. Tasted that way, too. After one sip, I pretty much downed the drink as Drapkin further explained that she had urged the store’s merchant to attend a Merchants Watch meeting. Such meetings are now common as part of a relatively new, concerted effort to address persistent crime and prostitution on the 23rd Street corridor. The crime mars an otherwise dynamic commercial street that has gained distinction thanks to several hidden-gem small businesses, many of them Latino-owned. And, of course, 23rd Street is the site of perhaps the best Cinco de Mayo Festival in the Bay Area.

Getting merchants to attend Merchants Watch meetings isn’t easy. Some are busy, while others are uninterested or skeptical. Drapkin remains vigilant. The founder of Urban Transformation launched an effort two years ago to attempt to revitalize 23rd Street. Unifying merchants, many who chose to operate small businesses out of a desire to be independent, is a complex and delicate process, Drapkin said. The task is daunting even for someone with Drapkin’s credentials: she’s a 21-year Richmond resident credited with leading successful efforts to reinvigorate two Oakland neighborhoods.

“I’m trying to get [merchants] to understand they have to have a voice,” Drapkin said. “They need to be part of the solution.”

The problem, of course, is gaining consensus on a solution.

The Richmond Standard recently spoke with dozens of businesses along the corridor. Of those willing to discuss the matter, they all agree on some main points: Crime – particularly prostitution – needs to go. But the corridor’s popular, Latino-owned businesses must stay.

That’s exactly Drapkin’s mission – to achieve positive change without gentrification. But Drapkin has long-known that any plan, no matter how comprehensive, multi-faceted or community-driven, is easier to devise than to sell to merchants and neighbors.

“I’m a stranger and I have had to prove myself,” said Drapkin.

In several ways over the past two years, she’s made good progress. Since she got involved, the strip has new murals. An alley behind Portumex has been beautified by local residents and businesses. 23rd Street now has a popular Trick or Treat event during Halloween. Pup Walks have residents walking dogs together while visiting businesses.

All of these activities, and more to come, are in the name of promoting a safer corridor. Perhaps most significantly, Drapkin has helped the city revive a public process for a streetscape improvement plan on 23rd Street that had stalled at the onset of the Great Recession.

Still, can Drapkin’s seemingly fresh, homemade ideas keep stores like Bionicos Yahualica in business, while also getting rid of the man who keeps loitering out front? It’s a question the Standard will delve into as part of a story series on what makes 23rd Street great, and the challenges the corridor faces as it struggles to shed its rougher elements and maintain its identity.

“It’s a vibrant commercial corridor,” Drapkin said. “There’s lots and lots of potential to capitalize on the best of what’s already here as a destination and to make it safer, more exciting to visit, and to get rid of prostitution.”

Urban Transformation

Previous to her work in Richmond, Drapkin was noted by several media outlets for her work in helping to drive commercial success in the Fruitvale and Temescal neighborhoods of Oakland.

In her more recent work in Temescal, she headed the Business Improvement District that fought to protect the neighborhood’s culture while using physical improvements and interesting events to attract both foot traffic and new businesses. Today, the Temescal BID brands its neighborhood as “Vibrant. Gritty. Eclectic,” as the neighborhood now boasts hip shops and restaurants that regularly attract visitors.

Richmond has its own challenges, but Drapkin believes the general formula remains the same. Her plan has included corridor clean-up programs involving merchants and community members, and she intends to implement a façade improvement incentive program to beautify storefronts. She says there are plans to make creative use of vacant spaces to bring in new businesses and residential units, particularly affordable housing. Two vacant properties on 23rd Street, she says, are being eyed for Environmental Protection Agency funding so they can be remediated for possible development.

None can be done alone, and Drapkin’s greatest mission has been vigilant attempts to rally merchants, neighbors and community advocates to assist. Using a Bay Area Local Initiatives Support Corporation grant, she formed Calle 23, a group of stakeholders that has met regularly since November 2016 to plan revitalization efforts on 23rd Street.

The group includes well-known community business people and advocates such as Larry Lewis of the Richmond Police Activities League, Diego Garcia of Leftside Printing, Sergio Rios of Bob’s Cleaners, Rafael Cartagena of USA Carpet, Lucero de Leon of the Renaissance Center, Oscar Garcia of Richmond Latinos Unidos, longtime local loan officer Griselda Ledesma, Raul Ramirez of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce and city advocate Cesar Zepeda.

Video: Second phase of the The Xotchitl Project, Feb. 17, 2018

Thus far, the group has collaborated on projects that brought dozens of volunteers to an alley behind Portumex Restaurant at 721 23rd St. for a beautification project. The coalition convinced local business owners to take part, with Laner Electric Co. donating lighting and the Richmond Rotary pledging trees.

Urban Transformation has put together Merchant Watch meetings with the Richmond Police Department, quarterly cleanups, enlisted public works to add six “mosaicked” trash cans and spearheaded the 23rd Street Youth Ambassador program with RPAL. The signature Trick or Treat on 23rd Street event, intended to help change perceptions on the merchant’s corridor, has attracted not only  families in its first two years, but also sponsorship from State Farm, Children’s Hospital, the CA Endowment, Chevron and Kaiser Permanente.

All events, Drapkin says, are small steps meant to unify the community behind a common goal.

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Second phase of the The Xotchitl Project, Feb. 17, 2018

The long-range goal, according to Drapkin, should be to form a Business Improvement District that can levy sales taxes to fund basic services aimed at keeping the corridor safe, clean and interesting.

For that, business attraction and retention is key, she said. Urban Transformation has partnered with the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in Richmond with the aim of ensuring that existing businesses can thrive. For the same reason, Drapkin works as a Business Advisor for the Contra Costa Small Business Development Center.

To date, perhaps one of the best, and yet most controversial, business retention and attraction strategies has been the recent revival of a long-dormant streetscape plan for 23rd Street.

The proposal, currently undergoing a community input process, could fundamentally change the way vehicles and pedestrians use the corridor. There have been ideas to reduce traffic lanes and/or add bicycle lanes, reimagine parking configuration and add ample street trees. But not all merchants are in agreement with the long-reaching plan, which could negatively impact traffic on the corridor. Some believe simply increasing law enforcement resources on the corridor would stamp out crime while also keeping local businesses from being displaced by gentrification.

But while merchants have mixed reactions, community members say their input is crucial to maintaining 23rd’s character.

Richmond Streetscape Plan

When Drapkin’s Urban Transformation started work on 23rd Street, she had known about a streetscape plan that had been “sitting on a shelf.” The plan (depicted in concept above) was developed by the city in 2008 with community input, but fizzled after funding went away.

To revive the plan, “We needed a squeaky wheel,” Drapkin said.

Drapkin approached Lina Velasco, senior planner for the city, to get the ball rolling. Velasco said the 10-year-old plan needed dusting off and updating. Helping to obtain funding for that effort was Zepeda, who asked about the streetscape plan during a Q&A with City Manager Bill Lindsay at a Richmond Chamber of Commerce event. Lindsay responded by dedicating starter funding and renewed energy toward developing an updated streetscape plan.

Just the idea of elaborate streetscape improvements, particularly as shown in a design concept for 23rd, garners mixed reactions from merchants. Part of that is due to misinformation spread among merchants on what a streetscape plan will mean, according to Drapkin.

Video: Testimonials from 23rd Street Merchants

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Reinventing 23rd Street

We visited dozens of businesses along the strip in recent weeks, a majority of whom did not want to be identified in this story. Some were reluctant to discuss the issue. Of those willing to respond to questions about the streetscape plan, the majority expressed opposition.

Sam Lee, owner of the ultra-popular Phila Burger, feels any available funds are best spent on public safety and education.

“If there is any type of beautification and improvements done in the area, it has to be done with respect to its current conditions,” Lee said. “Right now you have a lot of car traffic going down 23rd. It’s a main vein that comes right off I-580, and people treat it as such.”

But Lee said he’s “all for beautification of the neighborhood” that “gives people and businesses here a sense of pride.”

Lee was the only merchant we spoke with who was willing to go on record about his opposition.

Norberto Guevara, owner of Discolanda Market, supports a streetscape plan that improves parking on 23rd and brightens up the corridor to bring in more foot traffic.

Alberta Heltsley of Andy’s Donuts, near to where prostitution and loitering has been a problem, also supported the effort to reenvision 23rd, as did Diego Garcia of Leftside Printing.

Both Heltsley and Garcia, however, believe all business owners need to collaborate and be heard before plans are finalized.

“Some of them like the way it is because it’s bringing in customers to their business,” Garcia said. “However, most merchants want to see improvements because they need more parking in front of their businesses. A lot of businesses have changed location because there is no parking.”

That said, Garcia believes any changes to the roadway should consider the impact of traffic on 23rd Street. “If there’s more traffic here, there’s going to be cramped up streets that might be pushed into the neighborhoods,” Garcia said.

On the other hand, Garcia added, slowing traffic down would reduce dangerous speeding on the corridor. “I understand all of it,” Garcia said. “That’s why we really need to get into the community to educate them and balance what are the best improvements to make for the community as a whole, not just from one perspective.”

Seeing is believing

To convince concerned merchants and neighbors, Calle 23, with help from owners of Portumex Restaurant plans to create a “test block” to demonstrate how improvements can be accomplished to their satisfaction. From adding public art to better lighting, and creating and maintaining positive community events that draw visitors, merchants will hopefully want the same for their block.

“We need visible, tangible evidence,” Drapkin said.

Drapkin’s ideas to create small, meaningful changes seem boundless.

She’s trying to get Richmond Rotary to focus contributions of trees on the demonstration block. She’s also come to an agreement with AT&T to fund half the money needed to turn blighted empty phone booths into works of art. Lighting has already been added to the beautified alleyway. And Drapkin is counting on her youth ambassadors from RPAL to help sweep up the sidewalks and spruce up the area this summer.

Signature events like the annual Cinco de Mayo Festival are key. Drapkin is trying to convince the Center for Enamel Art to locate on Macdonald Avenue between 21st and 22nd. That way, a regular art walk like First Fridays could be held to include the Richmond Art Center at City Hall and NIAD Art Center on 23rd.

Not all merchants, however, have been immediately warm to such creative ideas. Drapkin recently asked a city commission-funded muralist to add another mural to the 23rd Street “test block,” but received pushback from a Vietnamese merchant. So, she enlisted help from owners of Anh’s Kitchen in Marina Bay, who helped talk to the merchant about the benefits of a mural.

“I don’t speak Vietnamese, but found someone who does and that made a big difference,” Drapkin said.

Drapkin can’t speak all languages, and she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. But she said she hopes that bringing everyone together and breaking down barriers can create a unified mission to create and sustain the 23rd Street merchants want and deserve.

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