Friday, Sept. 28, 2007 | In early April, a posse of about 30 community activists, police officers and local business owners spent a couple of hours walking the streets around the intersection of University Avenue and 30th Street in North Park.

Spurred on by a concept known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED, the group was looking for features of the neighborhood’s landscape that would help explain the area’s popularity with local criminals.

A Product of the Environment

  • The Issue: A study of the environmental design of a troubled intersection in North Park earlier this year identified a number of moves the community could make to ensure its streets are safer. Some of those changes, including cleaning up graffiti and closing down illegal homeless camps, have been completed. Others, however, like installing adequate lighting in dark alleys or removing benches where transients loiter daily, are yet to come about.
  • What It Means: Six months after the initial study, it’s too early to tell if the changes already made have affected the crime rate. But as the community continues to make the suggested changes to its design, local activists and police will be able to assess whether the design changes lead to safer streets.
  • The Bigger Picture: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design is a decades-old theory of crime prevention. The intersection of University and 30th Street in North Park is just one part of San Diego being studied by the SDPD’s experts.

They didn’t have to look far.

Unlit alleyways, shadowy corners, graffiti, shopping carts, overgrown bushes and sun-soaked benches perfect for attracting loiterers littered the area. Under the expert tutelage of Lt. Andy Mills, who led the exercise, the group identified a number of geographical features of the landscape that, if changed, might help make the neighborhood safer.

Six months later, while some of the lessons learned on that day and later codified in a police review have led to changes in the area’s environmental design, others have languished, either caught up in the planning process or simply left unimplemented by the community. Activists have worked to clean up the neighborhood and have discussed methods of keeping transients at bay, but on the key issues of adequate street lighting and removing problematic street benches, there is still work to be done.

Local police officers said they have done what they can to identify how the geography of North Park contributes to the five to seven robberies that occur in the neighborhood each week, and now its time for the residents and politicians to step up.

“We can only give suggestions,” said Officer John Ampol, who has been active in the push to clean up North Park’s geography. “The long-term solutions need to be done by the community.”

According to San Diego Police Department statistics, North Park’s violent and property crime rates are about average for the city. However, the area around 30th and University has been a hotbed for criminal activity for many years, police officials said. In 2006, the SDPD responded to 1,355 calls for service within one-tenth of a mile of the intersection, according to a police review by Mills and other officers from North Park.

Within two-tenths of a mile of the intersection, officers made 261 arrests and took more than 202 crime reports in the same year, the review states. Much of that crime is associated with the local transient population, the review concluded.

Consequently, many of the efforts taken to reduce crime in North Park have focused on essentially making the area less accommodating to transients.

Rafee Zakir owns the International Fashion Company store, right on the corner of 30th and University. Gesturing to a group of transients basking in the afternoon sun on benches outside his store Thursday, Zakir said he has to deal with loiterers outside his store every day.

“They’re like pigeons, one of them comes, then two, then three, then four,” he said.

The benches, which were installed by North Park Main Street in the mid-1990s, a local nonprofit business group, have been a bone of contention for the community almost since they were installed. The police and some local businesses want them removed, but Liz Studebaker, executive director of Main Street, who has been one of the leading forces in the neighborhood’s clean-up effort, says street benches are an essential part of any business district.

Studebaker said the organization’s design board originally opposed pulling out the benches, but that after April’s walk-through, the board began to come around to the concept that the benches attract loiterers, who attract crime. Since then, however, the issue seems to have gone away, she said, and the board hasn’t been pushed to make a decision on the benches.

“It’s just sort of fizzled,” Studebaker said.

If business owners want to reignite the debate over the benches, Studebaker said, her organization is happy to rethink their environmental design for the central part of North Park. Councilmember Toni Atkins, whose district includes North Park, said her office is still considering removing the benches, but that it is waiting for the business district to reconfirm their position on the matter.

Main Street has, however, been working hard to implement some of the other ideas that came out of the walk-through, Studebaker said. The group has been going after the “low-hanging fruit,” she said, tackling some of the easier, less expensive environmental design goals before moving on to the thornier issues.

Most of those goals combat the “broken windows theory,” which suggests that small signs of disrepair can begin to foster a climate of crime.

For example, Studebaker said, Main Street recently managed to convince two large local stores to install electronic devices in their parking lots that jam the wheels of any shopping carts that transients or other residents try to remove from the vicinity of the store. The move has led to far fewer shopping carts being abandoned around the neighborhood, she said, giving it less of a blighted appearance, and has discouraged the homeless population from migrating to North Park from other nearby neighborhoods.

Main Street was also instrumental in getting the police to evict dozens of transients from an abandoned building on 31st and University known locally as “Drowsy Maggie’s,” Studebaker said. Once the 50 or so people were removed from the property and it was cleaned up by a new owner, fewer transients could be seen on the streets, she said.

Around the corner from Main Street’s offices, however, there’s another environmental design problem.

Behind the new La Boheme condo development, which sits a half-block or so from University Avenue, there’s a long, imposing alley.

At night, the alley is completely unlit. About halfway down the alley, there are two large alcoves that house electrical boxes for the condos and that provide an excellent hideout for street robbers or other criminals.

Charles Tarr, manager of Calabria Coffee Roasting Company, a swanky café that backs onto the alley, said he often sees prostitutes soliciting customers in the alley when he arrives at 5 a.m. to start his shift. Marie Nealson, owner of Marie’s Café a block away on University, confirmed the reports of prostitution, and added drug dealers and muggers to the list of miscreants that can be found near the alley and around the intersection of 30th and University late at night.

Nealson said a duo of street robbers has been plaguing the area recently. The two muggers wear whistles around their necks, she said, and when they see a likely victim coming their way, they whistle to alert their partners, who emerge from the shadows.

“Then they’re on them,” Nealson said. “They just grab the person and punch them in the face and take all their stuff.”

The answer to keeping these and other criminals away is simple, said Nealson: Lights.

Marie’s is now the only business in the central business area to stay open 24 hours a day, she said, and it’s become something of a haven for the clubbers, drinkers and early-morning breakfasters that inhabit North Park in the late hours.

That’s because Marie’s, with its bright lights, feels safe even at 3 a.m. Nealson said.

“If you drive by here at night, I’m the only business that keeps my outside lights on all night,” Nealson said. “Other people need to turn their outside lights on — otherwise the street is completely dark.”

Studebaker agreed with Nealson, and pointed out that local businesses are also talking about installing some lighting in the alley behind La Boheme.

These and other recommendations that were made by the action group back in April are still very much on the table, Studebaker said. They will be combined with other efforts that have already begun, she said, like pressing landlords to clean up graffiti the morning after it is sprayed and holding communitywide, bimonthly cleanups.

And Studebaker said her group will continue to cooperate with Ampol and other police officers to study the neighborhood’s environmental design issues and to use that knowledge to help keep crime down.

“That’s one of our primary missions — to create a street-safe atmosphere,” she said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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