Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council Richmond, California

Prepared for the 1996 Planners Network Conference, “Renewing Hope, Restoring Vision: Progressive Planning in Our Communities.”

by Natalia Lawrence, Richmond, CA Planning Department

The Iron Triangle neighborhood in Richmond, California, is one that is plagued with a panoply of inner city social, physical and environmental ills. Once the center of community life, the retail and cultural hub of the city through the 1950s and 60s, the past 30 years has seen a steady decline in the quality of life for its now 11,000 residents. Today, the Iron Triangle has become a center for drugs, crime (the city’s highest number of crime incidents occur here), violence and physical degradation.

Fear, depression and hopelessness contribute to a lack of participation among residents in local efforts at organizing and action. A handful of residents, working through their local neighborhood council, have attempted over the years to tackle the complex issues confronting the neighborhood. That group, the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council, had achieved some success confronting local government on its attitude of benign neglect toward the area.

Residents felt that attitude had allowed several incompatible land uses to result in the area. A dangerous accident involving the use of hazardous materials at one location brought the relationship of land use planning and quality of life dramatically into focus. Residents also blame rental multi-family housing as a major contributor to drug dealing and crime in the area. Too often absentee landlords inadequately screen potential tenants, allowing drug dealers and users to overrun their buildings. Resident homeowners would like to see multi-family units replaced by single-family homes. Angered by what residents perceive as lack of sensitivity to the needs and conditions of the area and inadequate disclosure on the various industrial and residential land uses in the area, the neighborhood council approached the Richmond City Council and demanded that a review of existing land uses and possible rezoning occur.

Land use collisions have reinforced a distrust by residents of local government and to some extent local business, but even among residents there are tensions between renters and owners, youth and seniors, and turf wars between gangs as economic and social distress is blamed on the “other guy”. The challenge has been to change the attitudes of the various stakeholders within (and, as importantly, outside) the community from distrust to collaboration in order to confront complex systemic issues in a unified and inclusive manner.

In response to these issues and tensions, efforts were initiated to meet the challenge of developing a community based, resident driven planning (i.e. land use) and community development strategy. Although it was evident that land use conflicts were just one indicator of deeper community problems, land use was used initially to rally the diverse stakeholders in the community. Early in the organizing process residents requested help from the University of California, Berkeley, School of City and Regional Planning. Graduate students were asked to provide technical assistance, acting as “staff” on behalf of residents to objectify and expand the planning process. Along with the students came other local resources and diverse forces that grew into a collaborative committed to and achieving real change.

An unexpected challenge was the diversity of the group formed to address the issues of the Iron Triangle. Residents, businesses, agencies, city personnel all volunteered to be part of the new committee and this mix was further diversified by the ethnic range, the range of ages and the variety of personal agendas brought to the table. Creating a team from this, able to function and ultimately to overcome the challenges of the Iron Triangle, was a challenge indeed.

The solution was first to identify the stakeholders. With the aid of students from the University of California’s Masters in City Planning Department, the Richmond City Planning Department hosted a series of workshops, bringing together for the first time residents and representatives of area businesses, agencies and non-profits. The focus of these workshops was to identify problems and opportunities in the Iron Triangle neighborhood, and it was discovered that these were much broader than the initial land use conflicts which had brought the process into being.

The second workshop came up with five categories of problems: 1) Physical Conditions & Land Use, including the incompatible mix of industrial and residential; noise, pollution, visual blight; too many liquor stores, abandoned buildings; inadequate maintenance by absentee landlords; etc. 2) Economic Conditions, particularly the lack of local shops and services, affordable housing, job training programs and employment. 3) Social Conditions highlighted lack of communication; drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes “hanging out”, area parks not usable by families and children and the lack of services for youth. 4) Attitudes included fear, racism, hopelessness, lack of self-esteem and lack of leadership in the community, and 5) Government Services which are seen as unresponsive; there are too many cuts in services, too many services are in Martinez, the county seat, and there is a lack of transportation.

The last workshop was held in December, 1992, and from this came about 20 people willing to commit themselves to creating an Action Team. The graduate students from UC agreed to perform research into assets that could be mobilized on behalf of the Iron Triangle. Representatives from the private sector now include Kaiser Permanente, Marwais Steel, P.G.&E., Amot Controls and others. Non-profit agencies with specific expertise, such as the Rescue Mission, United Concilio West and the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, have joined. More and more area residents have participated.

Incorporating these stakeholders who were interested in creating and implementing a plan for strategic economic and community development into an Action Team was the first part of the solution. These are volunteers from every sector of neighborhood life who want to meet together to build trust and to identify issues; to achieve consensus on solutions to community problems and challenges. Recognition for the need for new ideas, fresh energy and additional resources was a driving force in forming the A-team.

The first action taken by the A-team in January, 1993, was to support and encourage the establishment of a community policing substation in the Iron Triangle. Working in collaboration with the Atchison Village Mutual Homes Corp., part of the Iron Triangle, with letters and a strong showing at a City Council meeting, the city responded by opening and staffing the substation.

The A-team set a major goal to: Create a strategic plan to address the needs of the community, with two sub-goals: 1) To improve the quality of life for residents and businesses in the Iron Triangle neighborhood, and 2) To attract and maintain new and existing businesses to bring economic development to the community.

Basic organizing tactics prompted the group to form committees and work on several projects simultaneously. Attempts to recruit new members involve flyers, meeting notices, a telephone tree and other means, including the Iron Triangle newsletter. Two major committees were the Economic Development Committee and the Land Use/Zoning Committee designed to examine existing land use and current planning and make recommendations on the General Plan presented to the City in 1994.

In March, 1994, after a year of meeting, learning about and researching land use planning, zoning, building standards and issues impacting the Richmond General Plan, the A-team, backed by the Neighborhood Council, presented its findings and recommendations first to the City Planning Commission and then to the City Council. The Iron Triangle was the only neighborhood in the city whose study and presentation was partially accepted by the Planning Department and unanimously accepted by the Planning Commission, modifying staff recommendations and clearing the way for further work to decrease density in the neighborhood. Ongoing work will focus on zoning language, building standards and communication with residential property managers regarding tenant actions, abandoned vehicles, clearing vacant lots and adjacent land and other neighborhood beautification efforts.

The A-team also established a two-part short-term goal: do something about 4th Street and make the neighborhood, especially in the 4th Street/Nevin Park area, aware that the A-team exists and that we’re going to do something to improve the quality of life. The immediate result was the first (and second) annual Picnic in the Park: Break Bread with Your Neighbor; Take Back the Park. The first picnic had more than 800 attendees, the second over 1,000.

For the first time the park was really used by a crowd that was multi-generational, multi-ethnic and included people from the disabled to the athletes who competed in a 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament. Entertainment ranged from a professional band to representatives of the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts to a neighborhood drill team. Food, supplies and money were donated for this effort by corporations, banks and small businesses in the area. For the first time the Police Department participated in a neighborhood event that was positive and that was safe. Residents really did break bread with their neighbors, they really used the park with their families and the A-team was really visible for the first time.

In April, 1994, the Iron Triangle led the way for a City application to the federal government to declare Richmond an “Enterprise Community”, highlighting the work of the A-team as representative of the kind of community/city partnership that empowers residents towards positive change. Members of the Action Team chaired various committees and worked tirelessly to ensure that issues specific to the Iron Triangle remained at the forefront of the application.

Since January, 1994, the A-team has seen initiatives in the Iron Triangle become more substantive. A program which has been supported as necessary to engage youth and young adults, the CYCLE Program, has received funding and public recognition for its innovation and creativity. The Richmond Museum of History, a partner since the inception of the A-team, has recorded greater membership and more visitors, particularly since the annual picnic in the adjacent park. The project has drawn the attention of notable urban scholars such as Dr. Edward Blakely, former Chair of the Department of Urban Planning at the University of California, Berkeley, and Gus Newport, former Mayor of the City of Berkeley and now a consultant in City Planning.

All of these efforts provide incentive to the community to stay involved in the process. Action Team members point to large and small successes, and constantly mirror a consistently inclusive attitude which encourages others to join. In July, this effort was awarded $62,400 in planning funds from East Bay Funders, a consortium of foundations headquartered in Oakland.

The Iron Triangle Community Collaborative (ITCC) used this $62,400 grant to hire a full-time executive director/community organizer and open a community based project office in a local community center in space donated by the City of Richmond. Most of 1995 was used in getting the office space up and running (leveraging in-kind donations from local businesses) and engaging the community in a strategic planning process which resulted in a set of multi-year goals and objectives in the following areas: educational preparedness and development; economic opportunity and neighborhood development; opportunities for community involvement and disaster prevention and preparedness.

The importance of long-range planning, however, is too often lost to the residents of neighborhoods like the Iron Triangle, where the tenuous nature of their day to day reality makes survival the mode of operation and planning for the future a luxury. The ITCC realized early that its approach towards community development must couple performance on real and achievable projects with the development of long range planning strategies. In an effort to increase its performance quotient, the ITCC partnered with the Richmond Redevelopment Agency to develop an urban garden vest pocket park at a key intersection in the area. ITCC hired 4 youth workers to help design the park, which will be used for environmental education by local elementary school classes and passive gardening by seniors from an adjacent senior residential complex. The ITCC produced a video on the planning and design process for the park and will continue its work in the coming months organizing the self-help construction portion of the park.

Cognizant of limited resources, the ITCC has prioritized work in two areas. The first is employment and economic opportunities. The second is education. In both arenas the ITCC will seek to catalyze the community and its institutions to create programs and consensus based solutions, while capitalizing innovations which complement existing efforts. The approach will continue to embrace community organizing and encourage involvement as the means to develop indigenous leadership and membership in the ITCC.

ITCC is actively seeking funding to implement programs and projects identified in the strategic plan and has to date successfully garnered commitments from major local philanthropic organizations for approximately $250,000 in seed money funding.