February 9, 2017
Members of the Council:
By way of introduction, I served as Chair of the community group that lobbied for construction of the new Splash Pad Park beginning in 1999 and have since continued working on its behalf as an advocate, volunteer coordinator, and Editor of the Splash Pad News. I would add that, over time, I’ve evolved from being the farmers market’s staunchest supporter to one of its harshest critics. As briefly as possible, I’m going to explain why that’s the case and why we’re asking you to reject outright the Agricultural Institute of Marin’s (AIM’s) request for a five-year lease (plus options) and to, instead, issue a Request for Proposals (RFP).
Let’s start with the January 24, 2017 Agenda Report, which recommends approval and paints a rosy picture of the market’s operations to date. I’m extremely disappointed that contrary views from the Grand Lake community (outlined fully in this September 2016 list of suggested operational guidelines) have not been incorporated. Nor, apparently, have the preparers sought input from the park maintenance staff tasked with keeping our neighborhood park, designed by Walter Hood, clean and beautiful. And I’m befuddled as to why there’s any question as to whether or not Splash Pad is zoned as a park. That said, I am in agreement with the Agenda Report when it notes that the Grand Lake Farmers Market is extremely successful and that it provides tangible benefits for local residents and the adjacent commercial district. Nonetheless, it has become increasingly evident that the market could be even more successful and far better serve the City of Oakland and its citizenry under more enlightened, local management.
How much has AIM contributed financially?
- AIM launched the farmers market in 1998 and, until last year, operated it rent-free.
- In 2015, AIM spent $39,000 to resurface the decomposed granite pathway that traverses the park – long overdue repairs that were necessitated due to wear and tear from farmers market usage. FYI: the adjacent gravel bed is in equally poor condition resulting in frequent falls. There’s no immediate prospect of repairs.
- In 2016, AIM began paying rent for the first time. Although the City Administrator’s office initially proposed an $800 monthly fee – the amount AIM’s attorney said “they could afford” – the amount was bumped up slightly to $1,000 after Jerry Barclay and I strenuously objected.
- A rough estimate as to what AIM has spent thus far for rent, city services, and infrastructure repairs: $55,000.
- A rough estimate as to what AIM has grossed thus far from vendor booth fees: $2 million or more.
Can AIM afford to pay more? While they are a non-profit organization, they are an extremely profitable, non-profit – reporting $2.57 million in total income in 2015 – approximately $250,000 of which is generated annually from Grand Lake Farmers Market booth fees. The more relevant question is whether the $1,000 monthly fee is in accordance with the Master Fee Schedule for special events. As shown below, even if you deduct 25% for their non-profit status, the monthly fee should be in excess of $5,000 . From a different Perspective: Is AIM paying anything approaching fair market value? The best mechanism for determining that would be issuance of an RFP.
What services are they providing?
As noted in the Agenda Report, AIM does support the CalFresh and Market Match programs, but the same services are offered at virtually every market in Oakland and the out-of-pocket expenses are mostly in the form of staff or volunteer time. More affordable prices would be helpful but AIM has recently issued an edict establishing minimum prices and penalizing farmers if they offer discounts. On the positive side, they do provide live music and do welcome informational groups, including StopWaste.org and the Masters Gardening program. While there’s tons of potential to do more, they don’t – and I attribute that, in large part, to AIM’s almost exclusive focus on their original Marin base. Here in Oakland, they’re doing their best to minimize expenses and maximize profits to be spent elsewhere. Here are a few examples that I find particularly troublesome:
- A disproportionate percentage of prepared food vendors are from Marin and Sonoma Counties.
The worst example: The “Local Spicery” (which isn’t local – it’s from Novato) competes with Oaktown Spice – two short blocks up Grand Avenue.(UPDATE: The Local Spicery is no longer selling at the Grand Lake Market effective late 2016)
- This past year, the Grand Lake Market finally hired an employee from Oakland who happens to be a person of color – the first in eighteen years to be either. (UPDATE: Jonathan Ruiz is no longer employed by AIM)
- Several years ago, AIM vetoed a former Grand Lake Market manager’s request for a blackboard to publicize special events but, over in Marin, they were (and still are) soliciting over $10 million in donations for a year-round Public Market in San Rafael.
Has AIM successfully fulfilled the terms and conditions set forth in the original Encroachment Permit?
The underlying assumption for an encroachment permit is that the applicants will leave the property in the condition in which they found it. From Day One, AIM has demonstrated gross negligence by failing to consistently provide “protective devices” to minimize damage to impermeable surfaces and landscaping. The photos below (taken in September 2016) depict grease stains in and around booths where vendors prepare foods and serve samples. In theory, AIM should be responsible for preventing and abating these conditions. They have been doing neither.
As for the permeable surfaces, two plant beds have been totally obliterated but the grass has been the most glaring casualty. Chris Blackburn, the market manager who retired last year, was the very first to make a major effort to protect and restore it. Since his retirement, the situation has deteriorated markedly – particularly in the last several weeks. Please note that the photo on the left was taken in September. Four months later, the same vendor is in the same space with the same set-up and nothing has been done to abate the problem or prevent further damage.
2. As an integral part of any new lease, we are asking the Council to mandate a comprehensive set of operational guidelines under which the market would operate. Key elements would include:
- Agreement on a market footprint that would ensure that perimeter sidewalks and walkways within the park are unobstructed and wide enough to safely accommodate shoppers and also allow free access to seating walls and benches.
- Staffing sufficient to adequately monitor activities within the park until the last vendor leaves. Current practice is to ask vendors to replace the bollards and not drive across the lawns – a practice that’s obviously problematic.
- An early morning inspection to make sure that all surfaces are adequately protected and an after-market inspection to pick up litter; make sure that garbage cans are emptied and to identify problem spots.
- A guarantee that market vendors are hauling off their own trash and not taking advantage of the free garbage pick-up service provided by Oakland’s Public Works Administration (PWA).
3. Specify which city department is responsible for regularly monitoring the farmers market to ensure that they are complying with the terms of the agreement, are held financially liable for damages, and are subject to the threat of revocation for repeated violations. Thus far, there’s been a complete vacuum with no one willing or able to take charge.
Please let me conclude with a personal perspective:
- It disturbs me that 43% of the neighbors who filled out a community survey last September never, or only occasionally, visit the market. This is the case for a host of reasons, but primarily due to the claustrophobic congestion, the traffic, and the parking – the last of which was happily just resolved by AIM.
- It disturbs me that Walter Hood, Oakland’s super-star landscape architect, stopped coming to the market years ago (before it got REALLY crowded), because he “couldn’t see the park.”
- It disturbs me that Arvi Dorsey, the “Mayor of Grand Avenue” and member of the original Farmers Market Board, threw in the towel more than a decade ago, upset over the absence of tarpaulins in food vendors’ booths.
- It disturbs me that Caroline Kim who, as leader of the East Park Preservation Association, lured the farmers market to the Grand Lake and then saved the park from a proposed strip mall, now chooses to shop instead at the Old Oakland Market on Fridays.
- But more than anything, it disturbs me because I no longer feel comfortable in the park that I helped create or, more specifically, at the Farmers Market that I once promoted so enthusiastically as the “hippest and happiest venue in the East Bay.” At some point, I’d like to be able to repeat that mantra.