Blogging Bayport Alameda

October 16, 2009

Susan Decker: Turning a Blind Eye on Street Life

Filed under: Alameda, Guest blogging, Transportation — Lauren Do @ 6:40 am

People in Alameda are fond of talking about what a safe place this is, and why that is the case.  Is it because we have a great police department, or a relatively small population, or a widespread sense of contentment generated by something they put in the pancakes at Ole’s?  All of those factors, and many others, may play a part (especially the pancakes), but lately I’ve become more aware than ever of the importance of good architecture and street design in preventing crime.

What it comes down to is simply the time-honored principle of “eyes on the street.”

The idea is that the more ordinary, law-abiding citizens there are looking out of windows and passing by on sidewalks in a given location, the less likely it is for crime to occur there.

Take this example: right here in Alameda, in broad daylight, a bicycle was recently stolen from a drugstore bike rack near Park Street.


Only minutes before, the same bicycle had been locked, with the same unfortunately inadequate cable lock, outside the library only one block away.


In both cases, the bike was parked for only about fifteen minutes, yet it was unscathed at the library, and vanished at the drugstore.

One could conclude that the location of the theft was due to random chance, but it certainly looks like a textbook illustration of the importance of visibility in deterring crime.  The bike rack at the library is highly visible from nearly every direction, including from above.   Some of the second story windows in the library project over the sidewalk, allowing a clear view of what’s going on below.  There’s also a good chance that people in surrounding buildings would see any suspicious activity at that bike rack.  Add to that the large numbers of people not only walking to and from the library, but also passing within a couple of feet of the bike rack on their way to different destinations, and you have a natural surveillance system at work.

In contrast, the only people walking past the bike rack by the drugstore entrance are those going to and from that particular store.  Because the store is set back from the street on that side, its entrance is less visible to people passing by on the streets and sidewalks.  During busy times, there will almost always be a solid wall of vehicles screening the bike rack from view by anyone in or around the parking lot.  There is also little chance that anyone can see the bike rack from surrounding buildings.  Directly across the street to the west is the disused Carnegie library.  To the north is an empty gas station, and to the south is a parking garage that might provide a view of the bike rack from some angles, but only if people are standing right at the edge of the garage facing the parking lot. It seems unlikely that many people going to and from their cars would make a detour for a view of the parking lot.

One might think that the solution would be to relocate the bike rack, but the design of the drugstore makes it nearly impossible to find a location that is actually good for parking bikes.  The building was car-oriented from its mid-twentieth century start, and is even more disconnected from pedestrian activity since its recent remodeling.  The size of the windows was reduced, and the side entrance closed off, making the parking lot entrance the only place where anyone is likely to glimpse the outside from inside.  The result is that it’s harder and less pleasant to walk or bike to the store, meaning that anyone or thing in its immediate surroundings is less likely to be seen.   There may be little that can be done anytime soon to improve this particular dead spot, but it should serve as an example of what not to do in the future.

There are many positive examples of building and street design in Alameda, and I hope that future changes will draw on them.  I think the library both emulated and innovated on more traditional street-oriented parts of Alameda, unlike the boxy motel that preceded it.  I hope that over time even more of our windowless, dead spots can be similarly opened up to embrace the security that comes from everyday activity of families on bikes, students walking to school, customers enjoying the sights of a shopping district from both indoors and out, and residents keeping a proprietary eye on their neighborhoods.

Susan Decker is an Alameda transit, bike, and pedestrian advocate.



  1. I would agree that good design does a lot to aide in preventing crime. However, I would also suspect that the bike rack at the library being across from the Police Station helps that rack from being a target.

    Comment by Barbara M — October 16, 2009 @ 7:20 am

  2. “I think the library both emulated and innovated on more traditional street-oriented parts of Alameda, unlike the boxy motel that preceded it.”

    Re: #1.
    “I would agree that good design does a lot to aide in preventing crime. However, I would also suspect that the bike rack at the library being across from the Police Station helps that rack from being a target.”

    Short memory, Barbara? Remember what preceded the library? Right across from the police station in that boxy motel was a large concentration of crime perpetrators. In fact, it was known far and wide as the trader ho’s of prostitution and the safe-way (after all it was across the street from the police station) of illegal pharmaceutical products.

    That’s not to say it wasn’t a “bad” location for those enterprises. I suppose the customers sensed a certain amount of security because of the location. And on the other side of the legal divide, the police didn’t have to go too far to meet their quota. Win, win situation. Unfortunately, the end of the boxy motel meant that the enterprises housed within scattered throughout the city…and that’s what we live with now. Newton’s law, action/reaction, you see.

    Comment by Jack Richard — October 16, 2009 @ 8:33 am

  3. Jack,

    That is where the good design part comes in. Rather than the boxy closed in style of the hotel, the activity of the new building uses that proximity to its advantage.

    Also I hope that the ladies that ran their “business” at the motel committed their crime inside after they got a key and not chained to a metal bar on the street. Don’t know where they scattered to. Pharmaceutical sales happen everywhere even with good and/or bad design in the good parks and the bad. Probably on the steps of the police station.

    Besides I catered the fundraiser for the library at that site and when we went to look at it for the party the office sign said their were luxury suites available. So I am sure it was a finely run establishment.

    Just having a bit of fun on a friday.

    Susan if I ever get a genie in a bottle I would wish for this city a plaza in the small parking lot by the theater. Open areas that create an ease of walking and biking with lots of activity are no only safer but build a sense of community. I have had my business on Park St for almost 4 years now. I know there are people that were unhappy with the build out and the theater but I will tell you with all the restaurants and fun stores even when the times are tough like now the street is busy and people from all over are finding Alameda a great place to come and spend time at the movies, eating and shopping. When we moved here Park street was a ghost town compared to today. I know it is expensive that it is just a pipe dream but it would be nice.

    Comment by Barbara M — October 16, 2009 @ 9:58 am

  4. Could it have anything to do with the fact that scumbags do not tend to hang out at the library? The part of town by the drugstore however …

    Comment by Jeff R. Thomason — October 16, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  5. Is that pipe thing at Long’s really a bike rack? That’s right on the corner of the building by on the street. Next to a busy ATM as well.

    I buy into the police station theory, which is really a super-set of the eyes on the street theory.

    Anyway, lesson learned – bike locks are like condoms; 99% effective but the best prevention out there. LOCK YOUR BIKE and do so where there’s a lot of foot traffic.

    Comment by Edmundo Delmundo — October 16, 2009 @ 1:49 pm

  6. Great examples of “Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design” CPTED. Lots of good information on-line.

    Comment by Jocelyn C. — October 16, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

  7. Susan,

    Nice post and good points.

    One humorous/sad note about how we think of buildings in the car age: you note that during the remodel “The size of the windows was reduced, and the SIDE (emphasis mine) entrance closed off”. That “side” entrance is really the FRONT entrance since it is faces the street, but in a car oriented planning world who cares about the street frontage. It is unconsionable that the Planning Department would have approved a redesign that blocked off that entrance!

    The solution for bike parking there at this point would be to place the bike parking directly in front of the functioning entrance, but that would probably require removing a few treasured parking spaces. Horrors!

    Comment by david burton — October 16, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

  8. The Longs (or is it now CVS?) lot is a dead space. It was never great, but now it is cut off from the rest of downtown by the parking garage. I don’t want to turn this into another parking garage discussion, but the lack of a sidewalk and trees along the north side of the parking garage adds to the dead space feel. Whenever I walk from Longs to Dan’s, it feels really creepy to me. Before the garage there was better visibility. Having the Santa Clara entrance to Longs blocked adds to the problem.

    Good discussion!

    Comment by AlamedaNayTiff — October 16, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

  9. I forgot to ask. Was it your bike, Susan? If so, my regrets.

    Comment by AlamedaNayTiff — October 16, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

  10. Locking your bike inside the parking garage practically guarantees it will get stolen. And just as ANT said, above. I don’t expect any learned lessons though. Each new project, no matter how stupid, comes with its own hysterical grupies that almost always end up louder than the voices of reason. Witness SunCal’s.

    Comment by AD — October 16, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

  11. Susan,

    Nice post. I’m glad you have added bikes to your explicit list of priorities.

    Bike theft is a major issue that has been under-addressed both by APD and the PB/planning staff/Council. I hope that both design and enforcement priorities change, as well as the facilities added that will help prevent theft.

    #10–For once I agree with AD. Action Alameda and friends have been mostly hysterical in their opposition, without contributing much to moving the redevelopment process forward.

    Comment by Jon Spangler — October 17, 2009 @ 11:07 am

  12. “Posted by Alamedans for Alameda Point Revitalization:

    Discovery of Body Highlights Need for a Revitalized Alameda Point:

    The tragic discovery of human skeletal remains in an abandoned building at Alameda Point should instill a new sense of urgency in the effort to approve a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the former Navy base.”


    I believe AD was referring to hysterical proponents.

    Comment by LittleChicken — October 17, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

  13. Susan,

    Shortly after I bought my first bicycle for commuting, I lost the key to my bicycle locker at the Fruitvale BART station. I continued to commute with my bicycle while waiting for the replacement key to arrive. About seven days later, on the same day the replacement key arrived, my bicycle was stolen from the outdoor bicycle parking area.

    Until reading your article, I had not worried too much about where to park my bicycle when in Alameda. While I still feel safe locking the bicycle to the sturdy metal hitching loops along Park Street, at Southshore, and near the Razor’s Edge on Santa Clara, I will certainly look for the places with eyes on the street in the neighborhoods now.

    Comment by William Smith — October 17, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

  14. Between the kids (four) wife (one) and myself we’ve had at least six bikes stolen from us in Alameda. Most from our residence, most thefts were our fault because we were too lazy or too trusting to bother securing them properly. One of mine was even stolen from inside our house and I didn’t even realise it was missing until I remembered I was used to having to walk around it at the botton of the stairs then all of a sudden I could walk a straight line…duh.

    Comment by Jack Richard — October 17, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

  15. #12. Exactly. thanks.

    Comment by AD — October 17, 2009 @ 3:33 pm

  16. No one is going to steal this guy’s bike.

    Comment by AlamedaNayTiff — October 17, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

  17. 12. That is interesting. Before reading that particular quote above about the body I would never have attributed hysterical comments to the proponents, only the opponents. I need to know whose body it was and how it got there before being willing to conclude anything about anything.

    The emphasis on clean up coming from signature gatherers was not hysterical, just a dubious misdirection.

    As soon as the initiative came out I was pretty unsettled and relatively certain I wouldn’t be able to vote for it, but I have been trying to make sure I get all information before planting a foot firmly in either direction. Ultimately the opponents may be more correct than the proponents in sum, but I have found myself wanting to argue against the opponents about many points, mainly based on the m.o. for their arguments, which I generally find easily characterized as hysterical. Unfounded claims about payola are particularly vexing.

    To me AD’s comment #10 is a mischaracterization for that reason. Even if the cinema opponents can somehow be vindicated as correct in the long run (which I don’t think is happening), in retrospect I recall lots of outright hysteria and hyperbole from “Megaplex” opposition, but nothing approaching that from “groupies” in support.

    Comment by M.I. — October 17, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

  18. #17–

    After attending two of the Chamber of Commerce’s presentations explaining their opposition to the initiative, attending three presentations by SunCal, and also reading Beverly Johnson’s press release about why she opposes the initiative, I agree with what the Chamber of Commerce has said each voter should do:

    Read the 283 pages that SunCal/DE Shaw will be asking us to vote on.

    After realizing I didn’t have the patience to download 283 pages, I called City Hall and bought a copy there.

    If one just can’t read all of that, take a short cut and read the Election Report published by the city and now on their website:

    You’ll find:

    The Executive Summary (39 pages) and the Traffic Report (48 pages)

    If one still needs more clarification, go to these websites put out by citizens of Alameda: and

    My guess is you’ll be able to take a stand after reading all of this.

    You and I as voters in Alameda are being asked to determine the future of Alameda.

    Almost 600 people retracted their signatures from the petition to get this initiative on the ballot.

    Possibly the biggest retraction came from the mayor, Beverly Johnson, when she said in her press release on October 13, that

    “I believe that the SunCal initiative will have devastating financial impacts on the City.”

    If this makes it to the ballot, I will be voting NO on it.

    Comment by RM — October 17, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

  19. Back to this post about bikes. I put more miles on my bike than on my car in Alameda.

    Bike Alameda is doing a great job working to make Alameda as bike friendly as any city.

    “Ride on” and lock your bike in a visible location.

    Comment by RM — October 17, 2009 @ 4:43 pm

  20. 18. apologies to Susan for continuing off topic.

    I lent my copy of the full initiative to a more ambitious reader and have stuck to the summary. Since election day is what really matters I have been indulging in my own ambivalence as long as possible because people like Lena Tam continue to take favorable positions and I am occasionally spurned on in doing that when people imply nefarious intent on the part of people like her supporting the plan because something is “in it” for them.

    I have gotten Lena to talk to me at fair length on a few occasions and I am very favorably impressed by her as a person, though perhaps I’m just not equal to asking hard enough questions. I do intend to revisit this issue with her some time soon if she can make the time.

    My general impression about people who are holding out for SunCal is that they think it is really important to develop and this chance will not repeat itself. I also think the idea that the initiative doesn’t bind us to the plan cuts both ways and can be seen as a positive in some people’s minds, in that it leaves room to negotiate improvements, though I know many are frightened by the latitude given SunCal.

    It is clear to me what the liabilities of this initiative may be, but frankly it is less clear exactly what the liabilities are if we blow it off and perhaps do nothing.

    Comment by M.I. — October 18, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

  21. MI: To put it bluntly, I think it’s a choice between jumping off a cliff vs. not jumping (and that’s not meant to be spin). Jumping is not a good option under any circumstances.

    I suggest reading the Renewed Hope report — it’s very concise and as these documents go, very readable. Here’s a link to the AlamedaPointInfo site which has links to the report (and the press release).

    I will also say, honestly, that ultimately this issue isn’t personal. Someone may be overwrought or very reasonable or very pleasant or very rude, they could still be right — or wrong. It’s the content that matters.

    Comment by DLM — October 18, 2009 @ 1:14 pm

  22. DLM:

    Please give me some credit for not being a complete simpleton with regard to assessing people. It’s not as simple as somebody being personable, it is their obvious thought process and content of the responses one gets when asking them technical questions. In that respect I find Lena to be thoughtful and well versed, not simply a sympathetic person to converse with. I don’t know which of the council people with whom you may have had much interaction, but I have had substantial one on one exposure to all of them, accept the mayor.

    A cliff is a cliff when it comes to stepping off, but I’m not clear how far it may be to the bottom. Lena’s response to commenters on her guest blog referred to the limitations on council discussing ongoing negotiations. I’m interested to see the outcomes of these discussions before concluding how dire the situation may be, even if the final drop is deemed lethal.

    This is not the first master developer. If I were a council person fully certain of opposition to the project I would still want to use these negotiations to fine tune the process in order to be that much better prepared in any future negotiations. We made so little real progress with ACPC that I don’t think we gained much preparation for s serious negotiation like this one.

    You remind me that I need to go back and do a thorough and slow read of the Renewed HOPE document.

    If a reader of their report thinks any damn fool should know from common sense that the number of units is unsustainable, then that reader might not be concerned about specifics, but I really anticipated a more thorough discussion on some of those points. An entity which has some kind of expertise which qualifies them to make such a critique should be expected to quantify the impacts to illustrate how they came to their conclusions.

    Perhaps they felt they delivered enough bad news that they need not take the effort to flesh out some of their claims.

    Comment by M.I. — October 18, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

  23. Comment by AlamedaNayTiff — October 18, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

  24. #23 Well, that’s depressing.

    I hope the people walking the streets of Alameda are more alert and willing to do something.

    But what would “do something” look like?
    Call 911? By the time the police arrived, the thief and bike would be gone.
    Confront the thief?
    Frankly, I might be afraid to do that if he/she has a hammer or hacksaw in his hand.

    Thanks. ANT for posting the video.
    Food for thought.

    Comment by RM — October 18, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

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