Motel’s a sleazy neighbor, residents complain
on October 16, 2008
by MELANIE MASON
Room No. 9 in the Chaparral Motel is not particularly charming. Cramped and smelling of stale cigarette smoke, the room offers what you would expect for its $35-a-night charge: a double bed, a tiny bathroom, a working television – with cable, which is, admittedly, a surprise. The motel isn’t much to look at either. Salmon colored with turquoise accents, the building looks as though it could use a good scrubbing – or several.
The Chaparral’s grimy exterior stands in contrast to its neighbors at San Pablo Avenue and 54th Street, in the Golden Gate neighborhood of North Oakland. Most of the block is residential, lined with two-bedroom duplexes that are modest and neat. Some residents are families with children; one resident, Josephine Lee, has lived here since 1968. Lawns are trimmed and hedges are clipped, and the general vibe is one of a clean, well-kept neighborhood block.
But nearby residents are not happy with the Chaparral – and it is not simply a matter of clashing aesthetic sensibilities.
“It’s just hooker heaven,” said Larry Benson, who lives two blocks away from the Chaparral and says he has been propositioned by prostitutes near the property.
Paula Londow, who lives next door to the Chaparral, said the motel has been a problem since she moved in last January. Trash from the motel spills over into her yard, leaving a mess of used clothing, children’s toys and in some cases, drug paraphernalia such as needles. In February, she overheard four men loudly arguing, with one threatening that he had a gun.
And while most complaints about the motel centered on nonviolent crimes, there has been at least one homicide on the premises in recent years. In July 2007, Dana Stell, a 47-year-old Berkeley woman, was found stabbed to death in her room at the motel.
“We have problems with loitering. We have problems with drugs. We have problems with prostitution,” said Lee. “This has been going on for ages. [The owner] swears it is a legitimate motel. It is not.”
Govindbhai Patel, the owner of the Chaparral, says he takes pains to keep prostitution out of his motel. “If we see anybody do something [with a prostitute], the next day we put them out,” he said. “We don’t want hookers. We don’t want the troublemakers.”
It is not uncommon to find motels like the Chaparral in urban areas. In its annual report for fiscal 2006 – the most recent data available – the Oakland city attorney’s office cited six cases where the Neighborhood Law Corp., a unit within the city attorney’s office tasked with quality-of-life issues, identified and dealt with problem motels. Much like the Chaparral, these motels faced complaints of drug activity, prostitution and crime.
“This is the kind of motel you find going on in inner cities,” said Oakland Police Sgt. Bob Crawford. “As long as it’s behind closed doors, there’s not much action taken. But that doesn’t mean I want it in my neighborhood.”
Until the unit was shut down in 2005, Crawford led the police department’s beat health unit, which dealt with “problem properties” that caused quality of life issues in their neighborhoods. One of his investigations focused on the Quarter Pound Giant Burgers, a burger joint across the street from the Chaparral that was similarly plagued with drug activity and prostitution. Using the Chaparral as a base for his operations for over a year, Crawford and his unit threatened the Quarter Pound’s ownership with a lawsuit filed under the Drug Nuisance Abatement Act; they later agreed on a monetary settlement. The Quarter Pound, now under new management, closes at midnight instead of staying open 24 hours, and neighbors say they have seen an improvement at the property.
Upon completion of the investigation, Crawford told resident Charles Porter that the Chaparral was next on his list. But Crawford says that although he went to the city attorney’s office to file a lawsuit against the Chaparral, the prosecutor did not believe there was enough evidence to proceed.
With the dissolution of the beat health unit, responsibility for quality of life complaints fell to the police department’s problem solving officers, who often must juggle competing priorities for the neighborhood.
“No one [in the police department] is going to do a long-term investigation,” said Crawford.
The strain on police resources has led to frustration among Chaparral’s neighbors, a frustration that was voiced by several residents at the neighborhood’s Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council meeting in September.
“I don’t call [the police] very often,” said Londow. “I just don’t. It seems futile. I’m not saying the police aren’t doing anything. The police did come after the [NCPC] meeting. I did see a little bit more of a presence. I understand they have bigger concerns…but we still have instances of prostitution.”
”It’s certainly on our radar,” said Paul Brekke-Meisner, a civilian Oakland Police Department employee who serves as Neighborhood Services Coordinator for the Golden Gate area, adding that police regularly sweep San Pablo for prostitution. “Prostitution is one of those age-old problems,” he said. “We do what we can to respond – to knock it down and move it on.”
Lee, who is active in her NCPC and other community crime-watch groups, brought her concerns to Councilwoman Jane Brunner’s office. Brunner said police are aware of the problem and are working with the motel’s owner to deal with neighborhood complaints. She also said her office was working with the city attorney’s office to explore options in dealing with the property. Brunner said dealing with the Chaparral was taking longer than she had hoped.
“A minor success would be that it looks good,” said Brunner. “A major success would be for it to stop being a hotel for prostitutes. That’s a little harder.”
In the meantime, community groups have sought other solutions to make the area safer for residents. The Broadway/MacArthur/San Pablo Redevelopment Project Area Committee, which undertakes redevelopment projects along the major thoroughfares of North Oakland, has approved a $1.5 million project to install pedestrian-oriented streetlights on six blocks of San Pablo Avenue, including the intersection where the Chaparral is located. The lights are to be installed early next year.
Lee, a member of the group, said she believes the increased lighting around the Chaparral and neighboring blocks will cut down on crime.
“The more light you have, the more it helps alleviate crime,” said Lee, “because criminals like to operate in the dark.”
Recently, neighbors say it has been quieter at the Chaparral. “It ebbs and flows,” said Londow. “I don’t know what to think. It’s been quiet, but I don’t know how long this will last.”
While other neighbors like Lee and Benson would like to see the Chaparral gone, Londow said she would be happy with stricter enforcement of rules that would cut down on neighborhood disturbances.
“I understand it’s a motel,” said Londow. “It’s not a hotel, it’s a motel. But at the same time, the rest of the block is residential. It’d just be nice to have some peace and quiet.”
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