June 13, 2006 > The negative impact of the city's policy
The negative impact of the city's policy
Assume you are a merchant or a commercial property owner on Niles Boulevard. Business is doing well and it is time to improve your property. Your ambitions could span from new toilet facilities for the building, outdoor dining space for your restaurant, expanding for more commercial space or considering live/work facilities in the back. Any of these options require the use of the Alleys for general access and deliveries, which prompts the City of Fremont to impose their alley policy on your plans. This means you get to spend an additional $100,000, or so, on your project. Fremont's policies have a negative impact on the quality of your life.
Assume yours is one of the wonderful, small, old homes along Second or Third Streets in Niles. The family is growing or maybe your aging parents need care and companionship. It is time to consider improving the property. Chances are that nothing has been done to the house since it was built, sometime between the 1890's and 1940's. Most importantly, you don't want to put a two story addition on the original structure because it will destroy the character of the house and stairs are not desirable for the elderly. The other option you are considering is a separate detached unit which could have many uses: home office, game room, in-law unit or as a rental for additional income. Also assume you are an avid gardener and are planning many improvements to the garden along with building improvements. You notice how nicely the Alleys provide service access and enhanced utility to your property, and you become interested in using the Alley. You also notice that the front yard of the house can be a garden, without a driveway, just like in the old days. You have become aware that the best thing you can do is to use the Alley as originally intended. Because of the Fremont's Alley policies, you discover that you need to spend an additional $100,000, or so, on your project, beyond the construction costs. Fremont's policies have a negative impact on the quality of your life.
In both of these cases you would be like everyone in Niles whose properties abut the Alleys. How many properties are there? We'd count approximately 160 commercial and residential properties. Interesting! Are these properties in the historic portion of Niles? Yes! Are any of these commercial properties within the redevelopment zone? All of them! Would it be in the best interest of the city of Fremont to see significant improvements to the historic core of Niles? Absolutely! Does the city's current Alley policy help redevelopment No! Is the city's 50 year old policy responsible for the depressed economic conditions in Niles? Quite possibly, yes.
The problem is poor civic leadership.
The cost impacts of a title search
Since the 1993 "Closed Door" Fremont city council meeting, the hammer has fallen hard on the quality of life in Niles. Town improvements are stifled if they involve use of the Alleys. Sadly, the city of Fremont is even afraid of itself. The new Fire Station, planned at the corner of Niles Boulevard and G Street, has Alley access. The plans for the building avoid using the Alley for the fire trucks, which results in a small building and a lot of driveway pavement. Building a new Fire Station is a long term investment of our tax dollars and each dollar should be spent wisely. Why is Fremont planning to under-utilize the property? Is it afraid of its own Alley policy?
When a building project in Niles (which implies use of the Alleys) goes to the City of Fremont Planning Department, the City's response usually brings devastating news to the applicant. This was the response to a request to build a garage which used the alley.
20 April 2005
From: City of Fremont, Planning Department
To: Property Owner (name withheld)
"Please submit a preliminary title report for the property and any type of ownership or title information for the alley if available. As discussed, neither the City nor the property owner owns the alley. To complete work in the alley, authorization must be granted in some manner. The City will work with you to accomplish this, however all costs associated with this will be the responsibility of the property owner. One method may be through a "quiet title action", which would effectively grant property owner rights to the alley. However, this will also put the responsibility of the alley maintenance and any potential liability on the property owner."
First, the city requests a title report knowing full well of its ambiguous outcome, costs, and problems. The city knows that deeds to the properties in Niles do not reference the Alleys, but the city still demands that this work be researched. In 1993, the city evaluated these costs as discussed in the following internal city memo.
9 March 1993
From: City of Fremont, Public Works Director
To: Assistant City Manager
"The cost of completing the title search is unknown at this time...many parcels had no old offers of dedication and it is unknown if the present owners will grant the offer. Even if they did, their mortgage companies may resist granting away a portion of the alley land. If the City has to formally go through acquisition for some 160 parcels, the processing cost would be in the order of $70,000 to $135,000."
The City was so concerned with their preliminary title search costs done in 1992 that they were pleased to not have to pay for it, as stated in this internal city memo.
16 October 1992
From: City of Fremont, S. Markert
To: Public Works Department, T. Blalock
"...When the legal questions have been researched and the costs of improving the Alleys and the liability associated with accepting the property rights has been eliminated, Council will then have the data needed to consider whether they want to proceed with acquiring title or to hold off. North American Title Company did not charge us (the City) anything for this research and has agreed to send us a letter summarizing their findings and retain the documents associated with the research for us (the City) for several years in case we (the City) want to pursue the matter at an other time..."
Appallingly, the city knows that the title search they demand of the property owners (to even build a garage) leads into the dead end question of ownership. Even the city's consultant, North American Title Company, felt the same way about the need for a title search.
22 October 1992
From: North American Title, J. O'Connel
To: City of Fremont, S. Markert
"At your request I have undertaken a review of the alley ways in Niles that the City is being asked to maintain. The alley ways were created on six different maps filed between 1888 and 1927... Most deeds for the properties would carry the underlining fee to the alley...based on this...I can see no value to the title reports since the City (of Fremont) could possibly accept the offer of dedication."
Is the city's intent to have the owner drop their project and save the city from having to resurrect these embarrassing issues? Does the city want the private property owner to formally take ownership of the Alley, knowing the ambiguous state of ownership, and that the city may actually own them anyway?
The cost impacts of alley improvements
Let's assume that an ambitious property owner, who dreams of improving Niles, gets past the title search and ownership issue. The next city requirement of the owner is to pave the Alley. We know now that the city was given money for paving by the federal government in 1983. And we know hat money is gone. The paving project never happened and now the city wants the property owner to pay for paving the Alley, which is used by the general public. So, if your property is in the middle of the block, the City will require that you pave half the length. The Alley lengths vary, but on average they're 500 feet per block. Half the distance would be 250 lineal feet. In 1993 the costs were estimated by the city's Public Works Department.
9 March 1993
From: Public Works Director, T. Blalock
To: Assistant City Manager
"The cost for construction has been estimated in previous Council reports as $700,000 to $1,000,000. We believe that range is still reasonable. If street lighting is added, the costs could increase about $125,000 to $150,000."
The total length of the alleyways in Niles is approximately 0.85 miles or 4,448 lineal feet. So, the paving costs to the property owner who wants to build a simple garage would be about $64,635. This is the amount it would have cost in 1993. Adjusting for current construction costs in the Bay Area, this amount would be closer to $100,000, in 2006, three times the costs of building the simple garage.
The city's Alley policy has a devastating impact on the full revitalization of Niles. Prior to the 1993 "Closed Door" meeting, paving was not required and there was no need for a title search, or any need to hire a lawyer to figure everything out. After the "Closed Door" meeting, Fremont began to play serious defense.
No wonder Niles is still depressed. Does the current state of the Alleys contribute to this depression? In 1957 the costs to improve the alleys was $55,600. In 1983 the cost was $753,000. In 1993 it was $1,150,000. What are the costs in 2006? Where is the Redevelopment Agency? Where are the civic leaders? What would Niles be like if the Alleys had been paved since 1956? How much has been lost?
The Alleys are a cultural resource to be improved and protected. In a healthy state, the Alleys will provide systemic vitality to the local economy. They are an experiential framework into the past leading into the future culture of Niles.
It is time to celebrate and promote the Alleys.
Paul Welschmeyer AIA
Historic Architectural Review Board: 1991 to 1998