Growing up in the Hilltop area of Richmond, Cesar Zepeda never knew why the empty lot at San Pablo Ave. and Richmond Parkway remained undeveloped more than 16 years after it was first proposed for a park. Sidewalks led to nowhere, and installed irrigation had nothing to bring water to.
Today, Zepeda is still asking why – but now as the president of the newly formed Hilltop District Neighborhood Council, composed of four homeowners’ associations – Contra Club Vista, Fairways, Lakeview and Summer Lane.
These associations representing residents of the area found their voice together after years of what they characterize as being rejected and neglected by the City of Richmond despite paying additional taxes for community development.
In the words of Zepeda, leaders of the homeowners’ associations realized that they were “dealing with the same problems,” and the formal creation of the Hilltop District was a “pro-active [way] to get processes done.”
As the four homeowners’ associations were not part of any active neighborhood councils, Zepeda said they each had to go to the City Council with any concerns.
Zepeda said that funding was not supposed to be a problem for Hilltop, as they have a special tax collected by the Hilltop Landscape Maintenance District (HLMD).
“It’s not an unlimited resource,” City Manager Bill Lindsay said. He said that the district has a budget set up on an annual basis, and lack of funding “might be a very legitimate reason” for disapproving – or inaction – on some proposed projects.
Only two districts impose special taxes for lighting and maintenance, Hilltop District and Marina Bay.
“It’s a million dollars a year and we do not have a million dollars worth of work up here,” Zepeda said. “There [are] things that never got done.”
Earlier this year, leaders of these homeowners’ associations created the Hilltop District Homeowners and Stakeholders Association, which include business owners as members. With the businesses backing them up, Zepeda said that the city now hears their needs.
Currently, the park is a scheduled for planting of grass and trees, and sidewalk construction and completion is expected by the end of November 2014.
Millions worth of waiting
In 1998, most Hilltop residents voted in favor of the special tax and annexation of some Hilltop areas. The special fund is exclusively for HLMD areas.
According to the Richmond Municipal Code, the special tax is for “enhanced maintenance services in the Hilltop area, including general area cleanup, maintenance of directional and entrance signs, and maintenance of the street and open-space landscaping within the area.”
At the time, property owners paid between $50 and $600 depending on location or zone. This year, the special tax has gone up to between $200 and $1500.
Zepeda said that their theory is that in previous years, the special tax collected and HLMD employees were assigned to public projects in other Richmond areas instead of working exclusively within HLMD.
However, Lindsay said that he is confident that the HLMD funds have been used properly. “We account very carefully for what have been spent,” he said.
Neither Zepeda nor Lindsay knows what caused the delay, as neither was in office back then. Lindsay said that it is “not unusual for development plans to change.” He clarified that this is just speculation.
“We do not want to blame anybody because it was years ago, we just want to move forward,” Zepeda said. “Let’s just get it done.”
The City of Richmond will contribute about $55,000 to HLMD improvements this year, including utilities, operating expenses and maintenance of landscaped frontages and medians.
Time for a “facelift”
More than 300,000 vehicles pass by the district on Interstate 80 daily, but rarely do they turn and drive to Hilltop. “If we get 10 percent of those people stopping and coming in here and eating, that’s humongous,” Zepeda said.
He said that their present goal is to give the district a “facelift,” and make it attractive for people to live, “stop and shop” at the Hilltop district.
In a recent survey conducted by the district, most responders worried that not even Hilltop residents shop in the district. “Sadly we leave our community to shop and dine out. We would love to spend our money locally but the options in our area are poor,” one commenter wrote.
The troubled centerpiece of the Hilltop area has long been the underused Hilltop Mall. Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said that she is looking forward to a “new type of development once the mall gets sold. A 21st century planning design will bring forward needed revitalization to the Hilltop area.”
The district is also pushing for the passage of the Digital Sign Ordinance that would replace outdated signs leading to the shopping district with more attractive digital LED signs.
The ordinance has been on the works for the past 7 years. In a Richmond Chamber Government Relations Committee monthly update, it was said that Hilltop signs are “overshadowed by Pinole’s signs” and the community may lose more businesses and jobs once Pinole updates their signs to LED technology.
“We are all learning,” Zepeda said after a meeting with Lindsay on Election Day.
Lindsay said that he would be meeting the new neighborhood council on a quarterly basis to go over updates on particular projects, and to monitor the budget and timekeeping of HLMD employees. More importantly, they will analyze the Engineer’s Reports to clarify the division of funding between HLMD and the City General Fund.
“Richmond is made up of many neighborhoods with different needs, but our transformation reflects a collective effort,” McLaughlin said.
“We want to work with the City, and we want the City to work with us,” Zepeda said.