RCPC and the Community Build a Neighborhood Library

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The city of Oakland has had a public library since 1878. In 1919, a branch library opened in Rockridge and, in 1924, was moved to a former bank building at 5701 College Avenue. This small library served the community until 1987, when the landlord decided to convert the space to commercial use. The library's rent jumped 10-fold from $500 a month to $5,000 a month.

The library could not afford that amount; the branch was closed in September, 1987. Unwilling to lose a community resource as important as a library, RCPC formed a Library Committee whose first order of business was to obtain a temporary site so the second busiest library in Oakland would continue to function. The next was to find a suitable location to establish a permanent home for a true, communitybased, Rockridge Branch Library.

The first task was accomplished by placing a small modular building at Birch Court and College Avenue on the northwest corner of the grounds of Claremont Middle School. The limited size of the temporary building meant that the already small library space (1,731 square feet) would be reduced to a total of 1,400 square feet of which only 1,000 square feet would be accessible to the public.

Working with the city's director of libraries, then-Councilmember Marge Gibson Haskell, the City Manager's office, and the city's Department of Public Works, the library committee planned and executed the relocation to Claremont Middle School (then known as Claremont Jr. High). After that, the real work began.

RCPC initiated a planning effort that grew to include many members of the community. The library committee, headed by Nancy Dutcher, an RCPC board member, created the separate Neighbors for a Rockridge Library committee. With the help and assistance of several local businesses and residents of the neighborhood, a plan evolved to make a permanent home for the library on a specific site on College Avenue.

The most desirable location at that time, known as the Art Stone property, was located at Manila and College. The site consisted of two lots, each with a house: a corner lot with a large Victorian residence containing a corner grocery on the ground floor, and the adjacent lot with another Victorian home and the remnants of the Art Stone business that had manufactured ornamental concrete bird baths, statues and fountains. Many houses in the neighborhood still have these concrete ornaments in their backyards, including my own. The city agreed to purchase the two lots using its Merchants Off-Street Parking Fund, and to donate a portion of the site to build a permanent Rockridge Library. This agreement is why the library has metered parking.

Having determined where the library should be, the next task was to obtain funding. A lot of money needed to be raised within Rockridge to fund the improvements, construction, furnishings and books that make up a library. If the community was to raise the money necessary to make this dream come true, the whole community would have to become part of the process. The first of a series of surveys regarding the neighborhood's desires for the library was printed in the Rockridge News to start the ball rolling.

A committee known as RCPC/CAMA (Rockridge Community Planning Council/ College Avenue Merchants Association) proposed neighborhood funding through an assessment bond that would create a fee on each residential parcel in Rockridge. That yearly fee would pay for a substantial part of the cost.

One alternative was also considered. It was proposed that a mixed-use building, including rental housing units to generate. income, be built at 5380 College Avenue. This proposal did not require creation of a parcel tax. However, as pointed out in the article I did on zoning issues in Rockridge (The Rockridge News, September, 2012), creating a multi-story apartment building on College Avenue was not what RCPC or area residents wanted. The village atmosphere of the neighborhood was at stake and the library project would have to be done without a large apartment building to provide the funding.

A petition drive was organized to obtain signatures from at least 10 percent of the residents within specific boundaries. Those boundaries later formed the first boundaries for RCPC, which, at around the same time, was incorporated as a non-profit organization. Non-profit status gave RCPC certain privileges, including fundraising and handling funds for the library. Using the authority of the Community Facilities District Act, commonly called a Mello-Roos taxation district, the petition was eventually signed by 1,214 residents, well above the 10 percent needed, and Measure L was placed on the ballot in November 1990.

None of the many volunteers had ever run a political campaign before, but signs were printed and thousands of phone calls made to educate the public on the benefits of the library. This intense campaign resulted in 81.6 percent of voters within the assessment district approving a $25 per year parcel tax for 30 years. The law required a two-thirds vote to pass the measure. Thanks to the tireless efforts of dozens of committed citizens, that threshold was far surpassed.

With one source of funding secured, and the commitment of the neighborhood made clear, volunteers began the process of seeking additional funding from the State Library Committee. The economy was struggling, and funding was drying up. Projects already planned and funded were being eliminated. A community effort was needed to lobby the state and ensure that the funding needed would be approved for the Rockridge project.

For the next year, a letter writing campaign was waged and telephone calls were made. Shortly after the Oakland Hills Firestorm in October 1991, residents trekked to Sacramento wearing Rockridge Library badges sporting colorful cellophane flames to lobby personally for funding for the Rockridge Library. In early 1992, the state allocated the funds.

For the next four years, community involvement was harnessed to determine the footprint of the new facility, the architecture, the color scheme, furnishings, books and equipment.

At the request of the community, a large community meeting space and a dedicated children's wing were included. The expertise of Rockridge residents was involved in every step of the process. Merchants also helped raise money by donating food and material for fundraising events. Great Harvest Bread Co., Market Hall and Rockridge Café were all instrumental in assisting the project. Granite pavers in the lobby and walkway were sold as fundraisers and engraved with whatever people requested, including family names, the names of parents and grandparents and faithful pets. Every conceivable effort was made to raise money for important equipment including what one article in The Rockridge News referred to as a "MacIntosh multi-media computer," which itself cost $4,000. A total of almost $158,000 was raised to buy books, furnishings and other enhancements for the library.

The diligence and perseverance of those involved cannot be overstated. Over 100 volunteers put in thousands of hours for 11 years before the doors opened in September, 1996. The willingness of the community to come together, offer their time, energy and money, plus the leadership of RCPC and a handful of dedicated individuals, created a prized and heavily used community asset that will stand for decades to come.

September 6, 2012: RCPC and Rockridge: Projects of the Past 40 Years

In April of this year, I joined the RCPC board. As a new board member, I am learning a lot about what RCPC has done for the community over the past 40 years. I thought it would be useful to highlight some of these activities and to consider what Rockridge might otherwise look like if RCPC had not existed. Lately, RCPC has been involved in stopping Safeway's effort to build a megastore on College Avenue and assisting the Rockridge BART station beautification project. These efforts are part of a long history of causes RCPC has embraced.

How Did Rockridge Happen? In the coming months, I will write of some of the history of the Rockridge neighborhood and how RCPC has helped to shape Rockridge over the last 40 years. This work was not done by one or two people, but as a group effort including volunteers who gave what time they could afford from their own schedules and who often contributed financial support that helped keep the organization functioning.

RCPC has a board that helps steer its efforts but others, who volunteer on committees or help pitch in on projects, have also helped make Rockridge a success story.

RCPC is a direct descendent of the concerned Rockridge citizens who banded together shortly after construction of two massive projects in the 1960s: Highway 24 (the Grove-Shafter Freeway) and BART.

The size of these two projects and the effect they had on the existing neighborhood were catastrophic. From about 1910 to the late 1940s, Rockridge had grown to become one of the early commuter neighborhoods in the West. Key System trolleys, trains and ferries provided direct access to San Francisco, and many residents commuted there to work. Shops sprang up on College Avenue, but much of the street had houses too. Rockridge also was home to professionals, including architects, doctors and lawyers who worked from their homes, and UC Berkeley faculty and staff. Many of the houses had separate street-front rooms that were used as offices. Starting in the late 1950s, the Key System trains began to be dismantled in favor of buses and highways.

When BART was planned, Rockridge was not the first choice for a station. Telegraph Avenue was seen as a more logical location. However, Temescal residents did not want the station for fear it could destroy their neighborhood. Temescal was the stronger of the two neighborhoods with more established businesses at the time and BART moved the planned station over to Rockridge. Today, the station is the only one in the BART system located on a two lane street.

Impact of BART and HWY 24 Thousands of homes in Oakland were destroyed in the construction of the track and highway, including many in Rockridge. College Avenue was cut in half. Construction stagings were massive with many located right on College Avenue. Numerous businesses moved or closed. No one wanted to go to Rockridge to shop as it looked like a war zone with a large number of its storefronts boarded up. Crime increased. Some have said that the Neighborhood Watch project was started in Rockridge in response to the high crime rate that followed in the wake of BART and HWY 24 construction.

Over time, antique shops began to come into the neighborhood, attracted by cheap rent, and College Avenue began to revive. However, when BART service started in the early 1970s, the city of Oakland decided that high-density housing units should be built near the BART stations.

This appealed to city planners because large numbers of people could live near BART and access it for commuting and otherwise getting into San Francisco. In addition, commercial zoning was to extend 500 feet (about 1 block) into residential areas on both sides of College Avenue. One such high-rise was planned to take up three blocks on College Avenue.

This outraged concerned residents and local business owners who came together to fight these projects. It was feared that these large apartment buildings would further cut up College Avenue and destroy the urban village feel that Rockridge had previously and was trying to regain.

Residents Seize the Initiative

Rockridge still was home to a number of professionals, including architects and city planners, who had the foresight to understand what these changes would mean to the neighborhood and could help in an effort to rezone Rockridge.

Through their efforts, coordinated by RCPC, the city rezoned Rockridge in 1974, adopting the R-35 (residential zoning) and C-31 (commercial zoning) codes developed by local residents. These zoning standards provided for lower density housing, preserved existing housing stock and supported the pedestrian-friendly, comparison shopping format of today's College Avenue.

Every new business and housing unit that has come since then has been affected by the foresight of these early protective urban pioneers. This tradition was continued in the years to come.

In 1985 RCPC incorporated as a nonprofit organization.