Community Voice


On Tuesday, December 15, 2009, the Sacramento City Council authorized the use of $100,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for infrastructure improvements for a “Pedestrian First” pilot alley project between Capitol Avenue and L Street from 17th to 18th Streets. Many readers know this as the alley where “Old Soul” Coffee House resides. Private contributions of in-kind services and dollars have also been raised for design and enhancements.

This pilot “Pedestrian First Alley” project will include pedestrian-oriented safety features such as way-finding signage, accessibility improvements, and traffic mitigation; beautification features such as enhanced pavement, lighting, landscaping and outdoor furniture; and replacement of century-old combined sewer and storm drains, and other utility lines. The City’s recently adopted General Plan recognizes the tremendous unfulfilled potential that Central City alleys present as pedestrian thoroughfares, residential front-doors, small business locations and possible restaurant and café designations. In contrast, most alleys in the city now function as service areas for trash disposal, vehicle access to garages and rear/side entrances of abutting property and emergency service access.

For the past few years, a group of Central City residents, property owners, architects, builders, city staff and other stakeholders formed the Alley Activation Committee, meeting regularly to discuss how to transform selected alleyways in the Central City from back-of-house service entrances and potential crime zones to vibrant spaces that contribute positively to the Central City’s ambiance and livability.
On August 11, 2009, the Alley Activation Committee introduced three different pilot project ideas to the City Council: (1) “Pedestrian First Alley”; (2) “Alley Oriented Residential Uses” in which the City promotes higher density by allowing more housing units on the back portion of a parcel fronting on an alley than would normally be allowed under the applicable zoning ordinance; and (3) “Restaurant Uses” such as including outdoor seating. All of these ideas were well received and Council directed city staff to work with the Alley Activation Committee to develop pilot projects, including the Old Soul Alley project described above, look for potential funding sources and increase community outreach.

Since August, the Alley Activation Committee have focused on the Old Soul Alley project, in conjunction with a land use application filed by Jeremy Drucker for a four-unit residential project fronting on the same alley. Many of you know Drucker as the innovative, green builder who successfully developed the area’s first LEED-certified residential project, “9 on F” (a nine-unit townhouse project at 14th &F). Both Drucker and members of the Alley Activation Committee have spoken directly to all property owners on this pilot alley, and they have been notified of public hearings on the Drucker project. In addition, presentations on alley activation have been made to the Midtown Neighborhood Association, the Neighborhood Advisory Committee (NAG), SOCA, ECOS, the City Disabilities Advisory Commission, the Midtown Business Association, and the Downtown Partnership.

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Steve Cohn

  • Ali Tabatabai

    This pilot project sounds worthwhile.

    May i also suggest the city consider installing pedestrian crossing lights for the crosswalk on J and 20th Streets? With the MARRS – Midtown Art Retail Restaurant Scene attracting so many customers, and cars zipping down J, I think it would be a small investment with a large return in public safety.

    • Steve Cohn

      Thanks for your suggestion. We’ll definitely look into that with the City Traffic engineer and the adjacent businesses. Those types of things are expensive.

    • Marion Millin

      The cost benefit analysis on that would hopefully include the expenditure for dozens of police officers and patrol units helping people cross J Street every Second Saturday.

    • The Parrhesiac

      In some cities..they have blinking botts dots on the crosswalk ( The little reflector things on the road…they have them with yellow or red LED’S…) in heavily used pedestrian cross walks… this greatly increases the safety of the crossing and is relatively inexpensive.



    • I agree with the traffic lights idea for 20th and J. This corner is a dangerous place.

  • Robert Pitts

    I love alleys.

  • Suzanne Hurt

    In our Sept. 23 story on the use of these funds, we reported that city sources said city council approval was not required because councilmembers have discretion over how Community Development Block Grant funds are used.

    While it is true that councilmembers can decide which projects get CDBG funds, city code requires that the council approve any expenditure of $100,000 or more, according to the city’s transportation department. The city manager may approve expenditures of $99,999 or less.

    The council also must vote to set up a Capital Improvement Project such as this.

  • Given the fact that the only business in this alley is Old Soul, it seems safe to say that the taxpayers are basically handing over $100,000 to Old Soul so that they can make their business more attractive. With all the problems this city is facing, why throw money away on one business?

    • The Parrhesiac

      Someone at Old Souls is OBVIOUSLY connected… I would check on their campaign contributions.

      They are also being subsidized to open the Oak Park Coffee shop near 40 Acres.

    • Don’t forget we are also handing over 100k to developers Heller and Kolokatronis (sp?) and businesses (Ernesto) and Old Soul as their buildings are on the alleys to be ‘activated’ while many blocks stay dark. Oh the Irony – this is ‘left over’ street light money. When neighbors demand minimal safety infrastructure like crosswalks and streetlight s they’re told there isn’t any money, yet 100k magically appeared for this. Alley activation is worthwhile but not at the expense of other much more desperately needed infrastructure. There are huge swaths of Midtown heavily traveled by pedestrians (P Street, 21st Street, etc) that desperately need lights. This money could have leveraged lights for many dark blocks. This is a total insult and slap in the face to all residents of this city.

    • Won’t this potentially benefit other businesses in the alley? And if this works as a proof-of-concept, won’t other alleys and businesses benefit as well?

      Note: This is an earnest question, so I’d appreciate non-hostile responses to it.

    • Marion Millin

      “Beerzie,” the same set of cronies own the “other businesses on the alley” and/or are on the Alley Activation Committee. http://www.sacramentopress.com/headline/19301/Council_District_3_100000_Christmas_Giveaway

      One reason that this alley should not be the template for development of other alleys is that Old Soul was developed illegally, with the knowledge and enabling of city leaders, who have protected them, while Old Soul violated various jurisdictions laws in as many ways as they could/can get away with. Old Soul Co’s “catch us if you can” behaviors and the City’s “look the other way” policy have caused constant nuisances and unaddressed public safety hazards for neighbors for four years.

      Not least of which is the ongoing parking nightmare, with Old Soul Co. customers, vendors, owners, employees, etc. constantly stopping in the alley illegally, blocking the alley, using neighbors parking, in violation of their almost one year old parking waiver. This is one of the reasons their illegal development has generated problems.

      The Alley Activation Committee’s plans for “activating” the alley, include further constricting the alley, adding outdoor seating to the cafe (the current tables and chairs are illegal and unenforced), plus other obstructions, without honestly addressing the realities of the vehicular traffic and parking generated by Old Soul Co.

      If the City showcases this as a pattern for success, when they have violated their own rules and not enforced city codes, they will use it as an excuse to do the same elsewhere — or eliminate relevant public legal protections altogether. This was Matrix project and may have been one of the illegal FPP cases. The neighbors were never noticed by the City on the Old Soul project, there was no public comment or engagement at all.

      The business opened out of compliance with a loud industrial noise running for hours several times a day and night — City Hall did nothing to correct it but told the neighbors Old Soul owners would “cooperate,” which they never have. It was the City’s responsibility to make Old Soul comply, not to allow them to open in violation of zoning codes — the owners refused to correct the problem for a year.

      When the cronyistic development cabal comes to your neighborhood, you get to see the real story, not the media spin and business booster’s propaganda. All comments about Old Soul Co. are in the public record, quoted comments of the owners themselves in the media, or comments from their customers and employees online.

    • Like Marion mentioned, the added insult to all of this is that Old Soul seems to be on a law breaking spree and rather than the city cracking down on them, they award them with $100,000? I vaguely remember one of the owners even being quoted in the press as liking to work outside the law!

      From what I’ve read in the news, their alley location wasn’t zoned for a food establishment but they got away with it; it wasn’t zoned for a retail cafe, but they got away with it; there wasn’t enough parking, but they got away with it. And their Weatherstone location is no different; Health and Labor Code violations, remodeling without proper permits, etc. And despite all this they’re more or less being handed $100,000 by the city in addition to getting help opening a new location?

      I guess the moral of the story is that it pays to be in bed with the press; drum up whatever story you want and they’ll print it for you.

  • So now the alley belongs to Old Soul? “Old Soul Alley Project . . . ” OUTRAGEOUS that this money was taken from a very poor neighborhood like Ben Ali which needs it so badly for council to subsidized Drucker and Old Soul who don’t need it at all!

    There may have been presentations at various meetings but were people told that Ben Ali was being robbed of $100,000 to do this alley? Were Ben Ali residents told and did they approve when they need more sidewalks and street lights?

    As a condition of receiving this money, Drucker and Old Soul should repay with interest Ben Ali folks.

    • Marion Millin

      Old Alley Soul

  • What’s a $100,000 to a city that’s going deeper into debt from year to year? How many city employees will be laid off this year councilmember Cohn? It’s okay because Old Soul will have an activated alley.

    There is a time to spend money on stuff like this, this is NOT the time.

    • Yeah, and if the city does want to spend money on stuff like this, why spend the money on a business which operates in violation of many laws and regulations; how about spend the money on an upstanding business that’s struggling to get by?

    • William Burg

      Hunnicutt: That $100,000 is a CDBG grant, not something from the city budget. It comes from the federal government and has to be used for infrastructure purposes; they can’t just throw it into a different box to pay a city employee’s salary. I would agree that I would rather see $100,000 originally intended to provide streetlights spent on, say, streetlights, but it isn’t something that can just be absorbed into the city’s general fund for things like personnel.

    • Gabriel Frazee

      If this money is meant for streetlights, it needs to be spent on streetlights. How about one at 4th Ave and Franklin where there’s an unlit crosswalk connecting an art gallery, coffee shop, corner store and an AA meeting hall? Motorists fly down Franklin and I quit hanging out in front of the cafe because of the amount of times my heart jumps every time I hear tires screeching and and see pedestrians jumping trying to avoid being hit by motorists who couldn’t see them on that dark stretch of road

  • Marion Millin

    Mr. Cohn’s statements are misleading.

    “For the past few years, a group of Central City residents, property owners, architects, builders, city staff and other stakeholders formed the Alley Activation Committee, meeting regularly to discuss how to transform selected alleyways …”

    When he says “residents,” he doesn’t mean people who actually live along these “selected alleyways,” who are not represented and not considered “stakeholders” at these ongoing meetings.

    “Both Drucker and members of the Alley Activation Committee have spoken directly to all property owners on this pilot alley, and they have been notified of public hearings on the Drucker project.”

    “Both Drucker and members of the Alley Activation Committee” makes it sound as if Drucker is not both Drucker AND a member of the Alley Activation Committee.

    Jeremy Drucker, as developer of Stitch has made outreach efforts to neighborhood organizations and to neighbors directly adjacent to his proposed 1717 Capitol condominium project. The Alley Activation Committee (of which Jeremy is co-Chair) has presented to various groups.

    However, the Alley Activation Committee has done zero outreach to residential neighbors on the alleys they have targeted for “Residential Alley” pilot projects. It’s not true that “the Alley Activation Committee have spoken directly to all property owners on this pilot alley.”

    That is, unless Mr. Cohn means only the property owners who also happen to be members of the Alley Activation Committee; the property owners who claim to be studying almost 50 potential alleys for activation, while focusing and devoting (City) resources to those alleys where they own and/or develop property.

    Other property owners and existing residents, most of whom are renters, just don’t figure in the plans or priorities of the Alley Activation Committee. On September 3, 2008, Julie Young and Ron Vrilakas made a presentation on the Alley Activation Initiative before the city Preservation Commission. One of the commissioners asked them when they would be engaging the residents of the alleys they were studying, since the committee had been working for several months with no residents represented. The answer was that it would happen at some point in the future. Still hasn’t.

    To this day, the Alley Activation Committee isolates itself from the community that it is purporting to be a part of. Evidenced by the fact that there have not been any monthly public meetings since the September announcement of the $100,000 CDBG windfall and yet the work goes on (avoiding an official decision about which alleys are the pilot alleys).

    Pilot Alley b/w 18th and 19th Streets:
    Julie Young, Alley Activation Committee Chair and former employee of developer Mike Heller (partner with Ron Friedman on the East End Lofts, architect Ron Vrilakas), owns the property next to Dragonfly, where she and partner Linda Clifford, the chief financial officer at C.C. Myers Inc., plan to build condos, with architect Ron Vrilakas. Next door, Ron Vrilakas, architect of Zocalo, owns two alley condos he built behind Zocalo, in the building he owns and where he has offices.

    Pilot Alley b/w 17th and 18th Streets:
    Jeremy Drucker, developer of the Stitch project (architect Ron Vrilakas), purchased the 1/3 lot on the back of 1717 Capitol, owned and “renovated” by Zocalo owner, Ernesto Jimenez, (architect Ron Vrilakas), across the alley from Old Soul Co. (architect Ron Vrilakas). Aaron Zeff owns property adjacent to the “Restaurant Alley” and owns the Priority Parking lot in the “Residential Alley” which Mr. Cohn is now calling the “Pedestrian First” alley.

    The Alley Activation concept has support and potential for community benefits. However, this is a “Developer First” attitude: self-selected stakeholders excluding the public from a process that benefits them privately and profitably, using City staff and public funds.

  • V Govender

    “Public Hearings” means public hearings ! How can we justify this project when the public has not had an opportunity to weigh in its considerations and concerns, as is being done here. Let me be the first to thank you Councilman Steve Cohen, for responding to our urgent request for a response to this very important matter. As you can tell, there needs to be additional focus and attention given to the varied points of view, as is relfected here. Please encourage that effort so that our community may weigh in. I would like to hear from the community of “Ben Ali”, so that we hear their concerns and considerations.

    • William Burg

      I would too; does anyone from the Ben Ali neighborhood have a problem with losing $100,000 in street lighting funds?

    • The Ben Ali Street lighting project was completed in 2008 so the neighborood is not losing street lighting funds. Additionally, Councilman Cohn is partnering with the Twin Rivers School District to construct a new park/playground.

    • Dale Kooyman

      As I understand the issue/objections, Sue, there was $100,000 left over from the lighting project. So with that underuse, there was a hundred k that could have gone to more sidewalks and lighting there on more of their streets. So they may not have lost the hundred k from that prior specific lighting project but it is now gone for anymore.

      Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Marion Millin

      Sue, the Council approved the City staff continue working with the committee to study Alley Activation in August. 2009. In September, Mr. Cohn announced availability of the $100,000 at the Alley Activation meeting and called for a plan — “within three weeks” — for a plan to spend the funds for Alley Activation “within a year.” There was no public Alley Activation meeting in October. There was no public Alley Activation meeting in November. The work has started in December.

      The process of expenditure of the CDBG funds and the process of Alley Activation have excluded the public that they are supposedly intended to serve. The Alley Activation Committee was assigned by the City to study over 45 potential alleys and chose the ones where they have real estate and businesses and incestuous relationships with each other and City Hall.

      And somehow it all comes back to illegally developed, media-darlinged, crony-favored, powerfully backed, politically protected and mysteriously exempt from laws, Old Soul Co.

      My suggestion for naming it is “Crony Alley.”

  • Hey cool it Marion. I may only be one of the cronies hanging out for morning coffee, but the Old Soul is named after me. And I’m considered the main crony. In the interest of fairness, don’t you think I should at least be consulted?

    • Marion Millin

      How did you get from neighborhood activist to developer crony, Brooks?

  • I thought Old Soul was a liberalist hang out…a semi piratical alley place where community denizens collected for legal brew and civic discussion. I had no idea it was a bastion of sleezy political back room dealing. The ballsy nerve! Back to Dunkin’ Donuts for me!

    Jeeze, folks…Old Soul’s got a looooong way to go before they can be righteously acused of corporate greed. What, is it a slow complaint day?

    • Marion Millin

      Just take your “semi piratical” line, give it a good tug and see what slithers out…

  • Well that’s a fair question. Actually, I’m just a general activist. Often Neighborhood but also Peace, Traffic Calming, Human Rights, Smart Growth, Local Business Support — stuff like that. Learned early that the world is run by those who show up. People like you, Marion.

    • Marion Millin

      Agreed. The overview and potential impacts on the whole community are my concern: the precedent that this sets; the blatant examples of misuse of power and privilege; uneven treatment of neighborhoods and uneven enforcement of laws; the hypocritical abuse of Greenwashing terms to dress up good old fashioned greed and graft, etc.

      What’s changed is the inflated sense of ENTITLEMENT that appears now; by those who somehow think it’s their RIGHT to break the laws, that are in place to benefit the whole community.

  • Mark

    It’s just not right that the city should be spending $100 grand on alleys when there are dark sidewalks on the main streets. There’s no street lights on 19th/20th between L and Capitol, along parts of 18th, Capitol and 21st -and this area is one of more pedestrian active in Midtown. Recently at the corner of one of dark sidewalks (19th and Capitol) there been assaults, robberies and vandalism. The city says it up to the business owners in the area to convince the property owners to pay for the streetlights. Well, property owners aren’t likely to pay for anything unless forced to. Besides it can be hard just finding the property owners- many are out of town. Plus we are working too hard to do someone else’s job (namely the MBA and City Hall). Lots of businesses pay high rent to be in this area. And lots of different businesses support and contribute to the success of the Midtown-Handle District – not just just a loud few.

  • Watch out for Julie Young and her crew… that’s all I’m going to say

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