Friday, June 23, 2017

Our Recent Letter to Local Pols Expressing Support of Grand Lake Farmers Market

English: Aerial view of city of Oakland, Calif...
English: Aerial view of city of Oakland, California. Lakeside Park, Lake Merritt in center, Laney College to the right of that, Downtown Oakland right below the lake, Interstate 580 on left, Interstate 980 on bottom, Oakland Inner Harbor Channel and Government Island in upper right. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
RE:  Grand Lake Farmers Market, managed by Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM)

DATE:  June 19, 2017
TO:  Assorted Oakland Politicians
FROM:  Edith Landrith-Robertson, registered Architect and Community activist

City staff in their January 24th Council report recommended to City Administrator Sabrina Landreth that the Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM) be granted a 5-year ‘lease’ to continue managing the highly successful Grand Lake Farmers Market at Splash Pad Park.  I support AIM’s continued management of the market as do many others, people who weekly vote with their feet by shopping at the market.  AIM’s market, repeatedly voted the ‘premiere market of the East Bay,’ has been instrumental in revitalizing the neighborhoods surrounding Splash Pad Park, particularly the retail on nearby Lakeshore and Grand avenues.  Our vital retail businesses provide tax revenue to the City.  I was one of the individuals who nearly 20 years ago was on the ‘original’ farmers market committee that selected what was then the Marin Farmers Market group.  We selected them (now AIM) because they were the most experienced, most sophisticated farmers group we evaluated and because, of the three groups considered (one managing the Old Oakland market and the other the Sunday Jack London Square market), AIM was the only group who explicitly promised it would:

Create a physically attractive market to appeal to people;
Create a market which would be seen as a ‘neighborhood’ community gathering place;
Work with the local business to develop vibrant retail in the neighborhood;
Create events that would appeal to a wide range of citizens; and
Select vendors based on what would appeal to market goers.

The Marin Farmers Market, now AIM, did what they promised and more.  Then and now they have the most expertise in running a quality high-volume farmers market.  They did it in spite of the fact that during the first several years of the market, an Oakland politician, since departed, tried to prevent the development of a successful market, having pushed instead that a Trader Joe's be located on public land, on Splash Pad Park.

Today there are those who would replace not just a good thing but a great thing with something of unknown quality.  “Why mess with success, enormous success?” There is a very small group of neighborhood individuals who are unhappy with AIM’s market. (See appendix to this memo addressing some of their claims.)  They seem to have convinced themselves - and a few others - that they represent the will of the community, a boast based in part on the claim that two of them are the key individuals who so many years ago saved the park from being developed by Trader Joe’s.  Some in authority apparently believe, based on their past claims, that they did things that they did not do and represent people they do not.  This memo is in part a challenge to their claims, which I would not undertake if they were not trying to destroy what is and has been a significant asset to the City and my community by using rewritten history to bolster their attack.

If you, person of authority, believe that certain individuals now opposed to AIM’s market have enhanced credibility because of their alleged roles in the original saving of the park and establishing of the farmers market, I caution you against accepting their claims at face value because most of their claims have little merit.  I know what was done, who did what and who represented the community because I was the first individual who spoke out at a community meeting at Lakeshore Baptist Church against Councilman John Russo’s proposal to ‘give the park to developers’; who was the first citizen quoted by the late columnist Peggy Stinnett of the Oakland Tribune in her first column (of many) written to save Splash Pad Park; and who worked with my Pulitzer-nominated journalist husband for several years, mostly behind the scenes, to help save Splash Pad Park from developers.  But I'm not claiming *I* saved the park.  Four women led the neighborhood effort, and it was a shared effort. One of those today leading the effort to supplant AIM (not one of the four women) did have a leading role back then in the design – I would say flawed design - of the park once it was saved from development. But if he is presented to you as the ‘man who saved the park and started the farmers market’ – emphatically not.  No, not even close.  He came late to the battle to fight off Trader Joe's, and indeed told me and my husband more than once that he supported John Russo, the council member pushing TJ's.  Evaluate any claims about the will of the neighborhood skeptically and empirically, not based on the supposed authority of those making the claims.

What matters is that if you take a dispassionate look, you will discover that AIM runs an outstanding market, and its patrons love it.  This success did not just happen.  As part of the effort to save the park, several individuals – my husband and myself included - worked to get a high-quality market manager to run a Saturday farmers market in Splash Pad Park.  AIM was selected for that purpose, and their Splash Pad Park farmers market has been wildly successful.  AIM’s market is one of the primary reasons for our neighborhood’s current vitality (as well as that of the neighborhoods that ring Lake Merritt).  AIM’s market has transformed my neighborhood, invigorating viable retail, and it has done so by bringing large numbers of people to its weekly market.   The boarded-up stores that once lined our streets prior to the market’s initiation – we moved to the neighborhood in 1991; we have seen the changes - are now successful businesses.  Today the whole area is seen as a ‘happening place” and as such contributes to Oakland’s image as a diverse, vibrant city.  To destroy the AIM market on the hope someone better will take their place is to take a chance, to risk tarnishing our neighborhood’s positive image, an image to a great degree created by the market.  The image of the market influences the image of the area’s neighborhoods, their businesses and the City at large.  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”  And, “Why mess with a good thing?”

Because we intimately know the history of the farmers market, because we intimately know the individuals and the claims they make regarding that history and who they represented then and who they represent now - and we know the claims to be far from accurate - we ask that you actually talk to the market-goers. In this memo, we will not delve further into the history of saving the park and creating the market nor speculate why a few individuals are doing what they are doing to oust ‘AIM’ as market managers (although my husband says an article about the saving of the park, the conflicts and the personalities involved, is a project for his retirement), we instead want to emphasize what AIM’s market has done for the community and the City, and because of that we urge you to talk to the many, many people who love the market and hear them and not just listen to the few who represent only themselves.  Again, please talk to numerous market goers and you will find, as I did, a farmers market frequented by:

Local individuals who love the market;
Individuals from all over Oakland who love the market;
Individuals from neighboring cities who love the market; and
Individuals visiting Oakland and the market from all over California and the country --- who love the market.

People take friends and visiting family to the market to show off Oakland, to show Oakland at its best.  The Farmers Market provides not just goods and services and a gathering place for citizens and, of course, tax revenue (market and retail district), but it is in itself a quality ‘public relations’ venue showing Oakland to be a vibrant, multicultural place, a happening place, where people desire to be.  It is the Agricultural Institute of Marin that has created it, and they are responsible for continuing to develop an ‘event’ that is seen so positively.

A few individuals are unhappy with AIM’s market, but the larger community is happy, very happy with AIM’s Grand Lake Farmers Market.  The few who object are far outnumbered by hundreds who love the market.  We ask that you look at and talk to the happy market goers who regularly frequent the market.  There are thousands of them and they joyously support AIM’s wonderful Oakland weekly event.  In this age of Trump, one should be careful in crediting loud claims that lack persuasive support.

Appendix: Save Our Market:  Rebuttal of Claims made by individuals who object to AIM’s management

Following are the most relevant claims made by a handful of individuals who oppose AIM’s continued management of the Grand Lake Farmers Market at Splash Pad Park with responses to some of their accusations.   The position of a few individuals in the community seems to be specifically crafted to cast AIM as a bad manager of the market.  The accusations by the small group seem to be designed simply to discredit AIM.  It is alarming to see what is happening in Washington being repeated here in Oakland, in our own backyard.  Facts are facts and truth is truth. These claims should be closely examined and evaluated.

1. Gravel path (decomposed granite):  Individuals are claiming that the wear of the gravel pathways is caused by AIM’s poor management of the farmers market and site.  I, Edith Landrith-Robertson, registered architect, attended a design meeting nearly 20 years ago when the park was being re-designed to accommodate the Grand Lake Farmers Market.  That meeting was attended by the design landscape architect, neighborhood individuals and myself.  I was told of the meeting and asked to attend by a committee individual who thought ‘wrong design decisions’ were being made by the landscape architect and neighborhood representatives and requested that I attend and comment on the design.  I attended that meeting and commented as I had been asked to do.  At that meeting, because of my experience with parks and public projects, I told the design group that the material being proposed for the majority of the walkways within Splash Pad Park was an inappropriate material for the proposed use.  It was, I said, not durable, would not hold up to light foot traffic, let alone heavy traffic.  I explained that the material could be easily dislodged, and when that happened it would almost certainly become a tripping hazard, a liability for the City and for that reason should not be installed in the heavily used park.  The designer, with the approval of neighborhood individuals, ignored my warning and approved decomposed granite.  Decomposed granite was installed and failed almost immediately.  I find it disingenuous now that the very neighborhood resident who approved of the use of a material (decomposed granite), a material which can never hold up to foot traffic, now blames the farmers market (AIM) for the poor condition of the paths.  He is blaming the logical outcome of his recommendation and the original poor design decision on the farmers market managers, Agricultural Institute of Marin, who was not part of choosing the wrong material for the park in the first place.  If the gravel is replaced today, tomorrow it will be kicked out because that is the nature of loose fill. Decomposed granite is simply the wrong material for the heavily used paths of Splash Pad Park.  It was a bad design decision and should, because it is a liability, be replaced.  But don’t blame AIM for the problem.

2. Local group wants to manage market:  Though he currently denies this, in the past a neighborhood individual has said the group which he leads wants to manage the market.  That man (who wants AIM out as market manager) stated two months ago at a neighborhood meeting that he and his group would like to run their own farmers market at Splash Pad Park.  They lack any expertise in managing a farmers market.  Managing a successful farmers market is not a job for amateurs. “Talk is cheap,” and turning over a highly successful market to a group that knows nothing of running a farmers market would almost certainly result in a decline of the Grand Lake Farmers Market.

3. Revenue Generated By the Market:  Last month the leader of the group that wants to run their own farmers market said at a meeting that if he ran the market he would pay the City more for running the market at Splash Pad Park than AIM is currently paying.  If any market manager paid more to use the site, that would be nice, but it is not just what a market management group pays the City to use the site that brings revenue into a city: It is what the market brings into a city (via sales taxes) as a result of the market’s activities that generates the bulk of the revenue from which the city benefits.  AIM’s Grand Lake Farmers Market at Splash Pad Park generates a significant amount of revenue through non-food vendors (which incidentally members of this group have stated they would like to eliminate) and especially by the business generated by farmers market attendees shopping in the retail establishments on Grand and Lakeshore Avenues.  Shopping in local stores and eating in local restaurants generates sales tax revenue for the City of Oakland. The man may pay more for use of the site, but if it is a lesser quality farmers market that replaces AIM’s market - and a drop off in quality is a likely bet no matter who might be chosen to replace AIM - then sales tax revenue will drop and the overall City income from the farmers market decreases.

4. Grass:  A few in the neighborhood blame the condition of the grass on the market managers (AIM).  The fact is that this winter Oakland received about 50% more rain than in an average year, and that made sod, sod in the park and in anyone’s yard, a muddy mess when walked on.  Grass can be re-grown.  Other than the grass, in my opinion the plantings in the park (my first degree was in biology) could have been better laid out, and, I believe, a different selection of plants would have been more attractive.  Originally the designer proposed Lombardy Poplars, but thankfully used maples instead and at least the trees fare better than other plants in the park.

5. Pavement discoloration:  A few neighborhood activists are ‘upset’ by the fact that there is some staining of pavers and asphalt in Splash Pad Park as a result of farmers market vendors and farmers market attendees.  I say, yes there is some staining, but considering that the park has been the site of a busy market for almost two decades, that is not surprising.   Some staining would likely have occurred even if a market had not been on the site.  Disneyland and Disney World both steam clean their walkways at the end of each day to keep walks pristine.  Periodical steam cleaning of stained pathways and gathering spaces would make the park ‘cleaner’ and no one would object to that, but, this claim, it seems to me, is simply a way to try to find something wrong with our wonderful market, so that individuals can push out the current managers who over the years have done an outstanding job.

6. Parking problems. The essence of this criticism is that the success of the market makes it difficult to find a parking place during market hours on Saturday and that AIM should do something about it. How to go about unpacking this complaint?  When my husband and I go to market, usually it takes five to ten minutes to find a parking place. But we always find a parking place.  If we did not love the market so much, we would go home – or never venture forth in the first place.  A handful of local residents seem to want a small-scale, mildly repulsive farmers market to which they can go without the rude jangle of rubbing elbows with the masses.  This, of course, is a recipe for soon there being no farmers market at all.  When my husband and I moved to the neighborhood in 1991, Lakeshore Avenue had so little foot traffic we wondered what was wrong with the neighborhood.  Today we relish those moments when the street is most busy, when it is alive.  What seems an inconvenience to others seems to us a welcome sign of neighborhood health.  The benefits of the market far outweigh any problems with parking.  As Oakland A’s season ticket holders, my husband and I have gone to many games in recent years where parking is easy, and we have had half a row to ourselves to watch our beloved, beautiful, bumbling A’s. Guess why that is so.  Is that what you want for our farmers market?

NOTE:  One aspect of the new lease with AIM addresses parking.  It is my understanding that parking will again be available at Lake Park School site.

Some things at the market can be improved, but why would any individuals try to destroy something that is so positive.  If one sits and observes the market, one is struck by the pleasure Oakland citizens and guests alike get from AIM’s quality farmers market at Splash Pad Park.  Improve yes, but destroy NO!  People are voting with their feet and that voting shows AIM’s Grand Lake Farmers Market is loved, much loved.  Keep our market!  Save our market!

Here is a link to a full statement of the criticisms of AIM’s management of the market. Here is the conclusion of that statement that makes clear the essence of its position.

Considering the long term lack of support from the current management – combined with our limited expectations for future improvements, we’d recommend that the city issue an RFP inviting other market operators to submit bids.  We’d also consider organizing a community non-profit for this purpose that would ensure more local participation and be able to pour some of the proceeds into Splash Pad Park improvements – as well as contribute more financially to the City of Oakland.

RFP means Request for Proposal and in this context means terminating AIM, though they can reapply.  The recommendation is to fire AIM in spite of the excellent job the group has done, replacing it either with those with no experience in running a market or, best case, with another market management group which has never run a market as complex and challenging as the Grand Lake market.  The latter choice would almost certainly result in many of the current farmers being kicked out since every market manager has its own group of farmers.  Yes, AIM could reapply, but the momentum for change – for pie in the sky, for glittering promises – would be great since that is the way the politics of a situation like this works.

Abel Guillen represents the district where Grand Lake Farmers Market is located.  We have heard - unconfirmed - that the mayor and other council members will follow his lead when it comes to renewing the contact with AIM. If you care about who runs the market, here's how he can be contacted.

Office of Councilmember Abel Guillén, District 2
1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza
2nd Floor
Oakland, CA 94612
Phone: 510-238-7002
Fax: 510-238-6910

This link allows you to make comments to him directly.

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