This property condemned

The Washington Market’s brand-new owner was the unsuspecting victim in the city’s plan to shut the market down to reduce neighborhood crime

Photo By Larry Dalton

The stories of violence narrowly averted roll out of the neighborhood surrounding the Washington Market like chapters of a local epic. At a Sacramento City Council meeting, Joany Titherington, who lives one block from the market, said she once woke up to find a bullet had landed on her dining-room table during a nighttime shootout. Her neighbor, Kirsten Tripplett, stood on her back porch and explained that she once found a bleeding man hiding in her yard. In the morning, the route of his retreat was marked by a trail of blood. Tripplett also said she’s had such scary confrontations with strangers who glide into the neighborhood on foot that she now gets into her car and leaves her north Oak Park neighborhood to walk her dog.

In interviews with SN&R, another neighbor, Genevieve Manzo, said that a man from the neighborhood once chased her and stuck a gun against her forehead because her car had gotten too close to his. Manzo, who said she’s from Chicago and is not easily ruffled, also has noticed cottage industries sprouting up around nearby drug dealing and prostitution. The neighbors who don’t discourage neighborhood crime are sometimes the same ones offering the prostitutes a chance to use their bathrooms for $5, she said.

Sandwiched between Broadway to the south and Sacramento High School to the north, the market and its sidewalks, at the corner of 37th Street and Second Avenue, have long been the public clubhouse for local criminals [see “A down market” by Chrisanne Beckner; SN&R Cover; December 5, 2002]. In spite of no-loitering signs, a crowd of young men drifts toward the corner from all over the neighborhood and spends time pacing the market’s cross streets. The loitering convinces neighbors that drug deals are occurring right there.

Other magnets for criminal activity include the nearby Women’s Civic Improvement Center (WCIC) and thoroughfares like Broadway, which, according to the city’s crime maps, attract as much crime, if not more, than the corner outside the Washington Market. But, currently, only the market, and another like it in south Oak Park, face the threat of closure by the city, which has just begun the process of buying both and converting them into housing.

In spite of the crime, the neighborhood around the market has attracted a loyal populace. Some people, like Tripplett, are renovating graceful old homes, tending new flowerbeds and enjoying the diversity and energy of one of the city’s oldest suburbs. Local businessman Harry Hoorazar grows sentimental just thinking about it. He compares Oak Park, in a metaphorical way, to a beautiful woman under assault. The rats, the dogs and the snakes always are attacking her, he said, but somehow she remains beautiful.

Lifetime Oak Park resident Michael Benjamin, a leader in the local-theater community, said that the last six to eight months have been calm, but longer days and warmer nights can ignite trouble. As he stood outside his family’s recently renovated house, a man rode a bike toward the market, swinging a slender length of lead pipe. Minutes later, a woman walked by cradling a menacing piece of wood with a sharp tip—for no apparent reason.

Neighbors have formed numerous activist organizations; the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, Drug Free Zones, Oak Park United Against Slumlords (OPUS), the Oak Park Business Association, and the Oak Park Redevelopment Advisory Committee all work to eradicate drugs, improve housing and unite neighbors. They also point fingers. Many activists have blamed the Washington Market for offering easy access to cheap liquor.

The market’s owner, Dalip Gupta, does a good business—60 percent or 65 percent of which is alcohol and cigarettes, he estimated.

Many of the neighbors who attend association meetings won’t enter the market, intimidated by the crowd. Tripplett says she’s seen as many as 20 or 25 people gather there at once. On warm spring evenings, the crowd is always moving—in and out of the store, up and down the block, in and out of cars. Police officer Lee Elson said that the market provides cover. When the police cruise by, drug dealers and prostitutes slip into the market as customers.

The market hasn’t changed much since Gupta took over in February. He’s added new paint to some of the interior walls, new Hawaiian shirts for sale and some brighter lights, but the stock is much the same. Along one wall, refrigerators hold extra-large bottles and cans of beer.

Just as the market has remained much the same, so have the arguments for and against it. Gupta, who’s behind the counter every day, usually in corduroys and button-down shirts, argues that there’s nothing illegal about selling beer. Crime, he says, happens everywhere. But, as Councilwoman Lauren Hammond said in an interview, “when desperate people get drunk, they do even stupider things.”

Longtime neighborhood activists would like to see the market purchased by the city of Sacramento and razed. Bud Aungst, who works on various committees, said that he moved near the market 12 years ago. “It was a blight then, and it’s a blight on the neighborhood now,” he said.

As the sun sets, young men regularly gather in front of the Washington Market at the intersection of Second Avenue and 37th Street; neighbors are intimidated by the crowds.

Photo By Larry Dalton

But allowing the city to shut down the market would mean using government power to displace a business that holds a legal right to the property. Just last month, the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency (SHRA) took an important step toward doing just that. It received authority from the city council to purchase the Washington Market property, along with the Days Market property in south Oak Park, displacing two businesses with one plan.

If the market owners choose not to relocate their stores, the city potentially will offer to buy out the businesses, or use eminent domain to shut them down. Lisa Bates, a representative of SHRA, described eminent domain as a tool for acquiring blighted buildings “for the betterment of the public good.” Bates added that SHRA doesn’t employ eminent domain lightly. At this point, she said, “all we have authority to do is voluntarily purchase the properties.”

On a recent afternoon, Gupta watched a small group of men come and go, looking tough. At least one smelled strongly of alcohol and had a fresh cut on his cheek and a bruise around his eye. Gupta said this man never had caused any trouble, but that any business will have some bad customers.

In the neighborhood itself, opinion about his store is split. Though neighbors like Aungst want the market shut down, regular customers, like Lorraine DeWitt, who works with the Department of Health Services, see a need for the market. “We are in a community here. We need our store,” she said. And as for “blight,” Christina Jones, who shopped with her young daughter one afternoon, said that the place used to be dirty, but that the new owners had “cleaned it up real good.” She liked that there were now flip-flops and T-shirts for sale.

In the weeks since the city authorized the acquisition, Gupta’s customers have been asking him to keep the store open, he said. He even started an informal list of signatures and phone numbers in lieu of a formal petition. The little tablet holds perhaps a dozen names.

The city’s plan to buy the markets represents the end of a long struggle for neighborhood activists, but it came as a shock to Gupta, who, with two partners, purchased the Washington Market as a business opportunity earlier this year for a whopping $710,000. He claims he didn’t realize his business had been targeted for closure until he heard the plan discussed in April at a neighborhood-association meeting. Within weeks, Gupta found himself sitting in the audience while the city council granted SHRA the authority to acquire the two market properties for “not more than fair market value,” which has yet to be determined. Gupta’s now desperate to protect his investment. He doesn’t own the property, only the market that sits on it and a five-year lease, leaving him sandwiched between his landlord and the city.

Gupta claims the site has been very peaceful and calm since he’s been there, but it appears that he could lose his store because of criminal behavior that predates him by years.

Until recently, no one from either the city or the neighborhood groups was very sympathetic. But north Oak Park residents are well-organized, and Gupta’s story has begun circulating. A few activists are beginning to see the issue from his point of view, but they also view the market’s acquisition as a permanent solution to problems they’ve wrestled with for decades.

Meanwhile, the city’s process for acquiring and shutting down the market is moving smoothly forward.

Originally, the Washington Market was not part of SHRA’s acquisition plan. More than a year ago, the plan was just to buy the Days Market. According to an agency report, SHRA had received letters from the Oak Park Neighborhood Association and the Drug Free Zones requesting the agency buy Days Market “to deal with the pervasive loitering, drug dealing and trash on the premises.”

A large, two-story wooden house converted into a market below and apartments above, the Days Market still has the fine lines of a large old home, but one that’s seen better days. In the market’s backyard, a striking collection of baby strollers and lawnmowers is watched over by a big dog. On a recent afternoon, a woman in a brightly colored sarong dug through the trash while her partner exited the store, popped open a tall can of beer in a bag and began to drink while the couple headed down the street. Around the same time, a shiny black sports car idled at the entrance to the market, the driver quickly and compulsively raking his seatbelt with his fingers while he talked to one of the market staff. He sped away, while farther down the street a high-school-aged girl heading toward the market trimmed her fingernails with her teeth. She wore a belt buckle that stretched from hipbone to hipbone. It read “Princess.”

Tucked into a small, intimate neighborhood south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in an area zoned for single-family residential housing, Days Market apparently was grandfathered in as an existing structure. The same is true for the Washington Market, a squat blue building with barred windows. The fact that neither market belongs in a residentially zoned neighborhood supports the argument for removing them.

Earlier this year, planners learned from police officers that the Washington Market property was for sale. SHRA decided to wrap both acquisitions into one project.

Kirsten Tripplett lives within sight of the Washington Market. She’s fond of her neighbors, but she has been threatened by strangers attracted to the area.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In the case of the Days Market, property, store and residential apartments all were owned by the same family. Owner Naz Eid said he would consider selling but that the city would have to make a generous offer. “The store’s been here for 60 years,” said Eid. “Who are they to say they don’t like it now?”

In the case of the Washington Market, there’s a catch. A landlord, Man Lui, owns the land and leases the market space to Gupta. When Gupta bought the market, he paid $710,000 for the business alone, he said. The stock inside the store, the name, the customers, a five-year lease and the “goodwill” were all his, but the land was not. Only Lui’s land was available for sale.

SHRA’s plan, detailed in a report distributed to the city council, asked the council to authorize a budget of $1.1 million of Oak Park tax-increment funds to “take all actions necessary to purchase the property and relocate the tenants.” As evidence that such an expensive project was necessary, SHRA’s report claimed that between October 2004 and March 2005, there were 457 calls for service to the police department for the vicinity of the intersection in front of the Washington Market. There were 144 calls for service at the Days Market intersection. It’s unknown how many were serious crimes or tied directly to the market.

(The Sacramento Police Department chose not to compile or release crime data for Oak Park to SN&R. Sgt. Justin Risley said that a four-month snapshot, which was all the department could provide, would not give an accurate picture of past criminal activity.)

The plan to buy the two properties came up before the city council on April 19. Available over the Internet as streaming video, the recorded meeting showed Gupta’s attorney, Steven Matulich, requesting the council put off a vote for 60 days, giving the new business owner time to respond.

Hammond replied that even if the owner was new, the problems at the market were very old. What is the legal term, she asked fellow committee members, for “buyer beware”?

Though she sympathized with the new owner, said Hammond, “the reason this was brought to us was because the Washington Market was up for sale. So we thought we’d grab it.”

Relishing the idea of turning both markets into single-family homes, the council unanimously voted to grant SHRA the budget authority to buy both properties. Chris Pahule, redevelopment manager for SHRA, estimated that both property owners would have received offers by press time. According to Lisa Bates, community development director for SHRA, the agency is required to first offer relocation assistance to Gupta, but if that offer is refused, SHRA can consider buying the business from him.

Asked whether SHRA might honor Gupta’s lease once the agency purchased the property, Pahule shook his head. “Our position is pretty clearly stated in the report.”

Gupta recently received a letter from a consultant offering him relocation services, but he has received no correspondence from the city.

As an agency, SHRA defines itself as the “public developer for the City and the County regarding affordable housing, public housing and redevelopment projects and issues.”

Along with managing public and Section Eight housing, SHRA manages 10 development districts in Sacramento with a staff of 325 and a 2005 budget of $222 million.

A list prepared using RealQuest data from a few months ago shows that the city is the largest landowner in the Oak Park area. It has managed rental housing, senior housing and some development projects, like the Food Source on Stockton Boulevard and Broadway. SHRA also owns some empty lots.

Michael Benjamin, who used to have lunch at the Washington Market as a kid, claims that the neighborhood around it has been calmer in recent months.

Photo By Larry Dalton

But relocations have been rare. When SHRA has occasionally displaced businesses, those businesses have usually preferred to sell to the city rather than accept relocation, according to Pahule. “All public entities have to relocate businesses from time to time when they need to carry out projects,” he said.

But other cities do not necessarily close down businesses because the neighbors don’t like them. Christine Egan of the Portland Development Commission explained that her agency has given up the authority to use eminent domain because the populace still was stung by past development projects that went bad.

Peggy Massey of the Downtown Stockton Alliance in Stockton also was unaware of any attempts by that city to shut down unpopular businesses like liquor stores.

Aungst, who is one of the Oak Park residents most pleased with the city’s plans for the markets, said that he doesn’t know of another city that’s taken this kind of a step—not even Oakland, which Sacramento has sometimes used as a model for crime fighting. The city of Berkeley has, however, used nuisance laws to convince liquor-store owners to sell their businesses to people with different retail interests.

Aungst admits that allowing the government to take property goes against a lot of people’s principles, “but at the same time, there’s a recognition: Something has to be done.” Aungst said that neighbors have tried to negotiate with previous owners to make changes, like stopping the sale of single beers, but were never successful. He’s pleased that SHRA has realized how serious the problem is and proposed a working solution. “It’s really a shame that we get to this point,” he said.

From behind his counter, Gupta explained that he’s not anxious to move. The market is profitable, he accrued debt to buy it, and he’s willing to negotiate over what he sells inside the market or how he sells it. He also feels that the neighborhood had the opportunity to oppose his liquor license if it didn’t want him to sell single beers or any other alcohol.

While he was buying the property, said Gupta, he had to give the community 30 days to protest his liquor license. No one did. There were also no conditions placed on the license by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). Not even law enforcement protested the license. If his corner was so dangerous, he wondered, why didn’t anyone protest?

A list of 27 stores with liquor licenses in the Oak Park area was passed on to SN&R by Nate Solov, president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association. The list showed that five of these markets had been caught selling liquor to minors between 2001 and 2004. Neither the Washington Market nor the Days Market was included in those five. In fact, in mid-May, Gupta received a letter from ABC saying that the market had just succeeded in stopping an under-age decoy from buying liquor within the store.

The Washington Market’s previous owner, Harbans Singh, had owned the business for a couple of years and undoubtedly was aware of the neighborhood’s criminal history when he sold it to Gupta. Singh even had witnessed a fatal shooting within his store. But did he know the city was planning to acquire the property and close the market? By phone, Singh insisted that he was unaware of the city’s plans before the sale. According to Pahule, “he’s the owner of the business, not the property. So we never approached Mr. Singh.”

When Gupta realized he’d bought a business at the end of its life, he approached Singh at home and asked that the previous owner return his money and take back the market. He waited for Singh to respond to his offer but has not yet heard from him. Gupta, who feels duped, therefore filed a lawsuit against his landlords, Man and Cheu Lui, as well as Singh. “Defendants had a duty to inform plaintiffs of the intentions and activities of City of Sacramento but they did not,” reads the complaint. Gupta’s suit also alleges, without proof, that “efforts by the City of Sacramento [were] the primary motivating factor for defendants Singh and [his partner Bhupinder] Kaur to list and sell the business opportunity.”

As a second cause of complaint, Gupta’s suit alleges that he was provided with an incomplete copy of the lease, one in which certain paragraphs were omitted regarding his legal rights if the property is condemned.

The defendants have not yet answered Gupta’s complaint, but for questions regarding the lease, Singh referred SN&R to his attorney, Raji Sha, who declined to answer.

To further complicate Gupta’s relationship with his landlord and the previous owner, he had tried to buy the property himself when it was listed for sale. With the threat of a lawsuit over their heads, and the confusion over missing paragraphs from the lease, the property owners since have removed their property from the market, though the city plans to go forward with its offer.

Photo By Larry Dalton

During the April 19 city-council meeting, one of the most adamant supporters of SHRA’s planned acquisition was Joan Barden, a well-known neighbor of the Washington Market. “Every day, you can see the young people going into and gathering about,” she told the council. “They’re drinking. I’m afraid to go in the store.”

Barden met Gupta for the first time at the most recent meeting of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association. While as many as 75 people shared dinner and donated coffee, Gupta sat anonymously in the audience—without his attorney this time.

It wasn’t until a break that Gupta found himself introduced to Barden. She’d recently heard the details of his story, and the first thing she asked him was whether he was really related to Singh; she’d repeated the rumor in public testimony in front of the city council. When Gupta denied it, Barden was quick to shake his hand warmly.

“I owe you an apology,” she said, anxious to knit up any rift between them.

Gupta seemed quietly pleased. “I wanted to meet you,” he told her shyly, “but I was a little bit scared.”

Barden’s response obviously unnerved him. She hugged him hard, telling her new neighbor that the community had to work together. In effect, Gupta was one of them now.

From that moment on, Barden and Gupta sat head to head, working out possible alternatives for improving, rather than closing, the market. More than one neighbor had suggested that north Oak Park really needed a deli. Now, on a spare sheet of paper, Barden worked out her ideas for an upscale sandwich counter with herbal teas. She envisioned a market that would serve her and her neighbors, as opposed to the people she feared on the streets.

Ironically, the next day, Gupta pulled out his own personal collection of brochures from sandwich and coffee vendors—he’d already planned to convert one part of the market to a sandwich counter, he said, but with news of the acquisition, he had been afraid to sink more money into the market.

Though Barden and Gupta left the meeting as friends, and a few other neighbors began to soften toward him, the next week, during an Oak Park Redevelopment Advisory Committee meeting, it was clear that the neighborhood leaders were still adamant about closing the market.

Asked whether SHRA ever had offered the business owner some assistance for changing the market into something less controversial, Bates said no, but that if the market owner had a proposition, like relinquishing his liquor license, “he needs to come in and talk to us.”

According to Pahule, the process of moving or shutting down the markets begins with the city’s offer to buy both properties. If those offers are accepted, the markets can get relocation assistance or sell their businesses to the city. Currently, said Bates, a relocation consultant is preparing to find stable locations where the markets might move. It will take the consultant about two months, she estimated, to meet with all the interested parties.

If the tenants don’t accept relocation or an offer to settle, the city can begin eminent-domain proceedings—though only after negotiation with city government and the community.

SHRA hopes to prepare a plan for building a single-family home on the site of the Washington Market. The Days Market, which was once a single-family home, may be rehabilitated. Pahule also mentioned plans to develop two empty lots across 37th Street from the Washington Market. With three new homes and no wide public space for loitering, neighborhood advocates expect the crime and violence to die down on the corner of 37th Street and Second Avenue.

It may, however, move east or west. As SHRA’s report said, there’s another market just a few blocks east of the Washington Market. The Serv-Rite market is much quieter than its neighbor, with only 17 calls for police response in the last six months, but if one public-gathering site is shut down, others may inherit its problems.

And the Washington Market and the Days Market are not the only two liquor stores in the Oak Park area. Asked whether SHRA is considering acquiring any other liquor stores, Pahule said, “We have been looking comprehensively at all the markets. However, we’re not looking at any more properties for acquisition.”

Hammond’s not ready to close the door on that possibility, though. She hopes the current acquisition plan acts as a warning to other liquor stores in Oak Park. Market owners have options to improve the neighborhoods around them now, by changing what they sell or enforcing no-loitering laws. Once the city gets involved, they may find their options as limited as Gupta’s.