Proposed Hilltop Mall Safe Park program faces community opposition

Richmond puts brakes on Safe RV Parking Program
RV parked on a city street. (Photo by Mike Kinney)

By Mike Kinney

A proposed, one-year pilot program providing safe haven for RV dwellers in a portion of the Hilltop Mall parking lot is receiving staunch opposition from neighbors.

The Safe Parking Pilot Program has been a goal of the city’s for several years, and officials say the need for it has only grown amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, as the city has seen an exponential growth in people living in their vehicles.

On Feb. 2, city staff presented to council three of what they considered the most ideal of 35 evaluated locations to host the pilot program, which would be operated by a nonprofit. They included the Lighthouse Building at 1800 Barrett Ave.; the Fire Training Center at Cutting Boulevard and Stege Avenue, and the Richmond Civic Center employee parking lot across from the Main Library at 27th Street and Nevin Ave.

Instead of those three sites, Richmond City Council chose the mostly vacant Hilltop Mall’s vast parking lot as the top prospective choice for the program, followed by Civic Center as the backup option. City staff was directed to look into the feasibility of Hilltop Mall, a 77-acre property that is privately owned. The property is in the process of being sold to Prologis, a logistics company which, according to Mayor Tom Butt’s e-forum newsletter, plans to build a logistics center there, “along with housing, perhaps a Walmart upgraded to include a complete grocery supermarket and some other retail, commercial or industrial uses.”

The company “will donate $250,000” toward the cost of running the Safe Parking pilot program, the mayor said.

The plans have rankled Hilltop community leaders, who say no one had reached out to them or their neighbors for their input. A petition set up to oppose the proposal and to pitch a different location for the safe parking program has garnered over 1,000 signatures in one week.

Photo credit: Richmond Mayor Tom Butt’s e-forum newsletter.

Neighbors in Hilltop worry over the impact of a temporary homeless program in their area. The nearby Courtyard by Marriott at Hilltop is being used to house roughly 200 people suffering from homelessness as part of the state’s Project Roomkey initiative, also a temporary program. Neighbors are concerned about what will happen when these programs end, and are requesting that the city find a more permanent solution.

According to Cesar Zepeda, president of the Hilltop District Neighborhood Council, a more appropriate location for the safe parking program would be at a city-owned site on 22nd Street near the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program (GRIP) headquarters. Zepeda argues the site is supported by GRIP, which can provide regular meals, showers and social services to RV dwellers, and is near BART, Kaiser, the Family Justice Center and other important service sites. The GRIP site, unlike the Hilltop Mall site, would allow kids and pets, Zepeda said. A proposal to locate the Safe Parking program there, called Project Hope, will be formally presented at the Feb. 23 council meeting, Zepeda said.

“We need to find a location that would be longterm and that would be the GRIP site,” he said.

Michelle Milam, the city’s Crime Prevention Manager who is providing council support on the initiative, said agreements with the privately-owned Hilltop Mall still need to be reached, and logistics at the proposed site still need to be determined, before a plan can move forward there.

Mayor Butt, who has been pushing to establish a safe parking program for several years, stated in his e-forum newsletter that every neighborhood will push back against homeless people living nearby in tents or RVs. Identifying an appropriate location and establishing funding has been a challenge, he said.

The mayor previously proposed locating the program at the end of Castro Street in North Richmond, a long dead-end street with no abutting residences and businesses. While that location was approved unanimously by council, city staff rejected the site and “instead we ended up with an unmanaged site within a few hundred feet of Castro Street, along the Parkway and blocking the Bay Trail,” the mayor said.

Sites more recently proposed by city staff were limited to 10-30 vehicles, “when there are 80-100 RVs at the two biggest informal camps at Rydin Road and the Richmond Parkway,” Mayor Butt said. One of the Safe Parking Program’s principal goals was to address the Rydin Road encampment, he added.

“Why Hilltop? Well there are 77 acres of pavement that is far in excess of what is needed to serve the only remaining business – Walmart,” Butt said, adding, “The proposed Hilltop Mall Safe Park would occupy only a tiny fraction of the vast Mall parking lot and could be well located away from existing residences and businesses.”‘

Butt prefers Hilltop over the Civic Center, as he notes the latter option could fit only 20 vehicles, is adjacent to the Library, would share parking with city staff and the public and is near businesses. He argues the Hilltop site could accommodate over 100 RVs, has access to water and electricity and is served by AC Transit, among other benefits.

The Safe Parking site would be fenced with round-the-clock security, the mayor said, adding that campers would be provided with access to water, toilets, electricity for recharging phones, dumpsters, possibly showers and services to address physical and mental health and addiction. The site would aim to relocate campers into permanent housing, he said.

“At the end of the day, we have to do something,” Mayor Butt said, noting the Safe Parking site would be well-managed as opposed to existing unsanctioned sites that accumulate trash.

Milam recognizes the challenges the community is facing but said it is important for residents to come together on solutions at a difficult and uncertain time.

“How we as a community work to offer opportunities to those with some of the greatest needs is a deeply rooted, challenging conversation,” Milam said. “Cities all over have seen a rise in homelessness, especially during the pandemic. As partial rents become due, coffee shops, libraries, other places that people go to get some respite are closed, and many social services and mental health are impacted. People see the car parked on the street with someone living in it, or the tent and the debris; on the other side of that coin are people in crisis in the midst of a crisis, the extent which won’t even be known for some time.”