VALLEJO – Tony’s Cakes on Vallejo’s Springs Road has been broken into six times in the past 6 months. Thieves stole some of owner Tony Diaz’s personal documents during one break-in, and Diaz said he found out that someone used his information to purchase jewelry in Fairfield. Diaz told Vallejo police that the jeweler had a video of the person who had made the purchase but said nothing came of it.
“I was so fed up that I started sleeping over in my shop with a gun,” Diaz told the Sun in an interview. “I don’t want to end up a criminal, but I need to defend my business.”
Later, Diaz connected with Jessica Brooks of Anchor Pantry at Marin Street and Virginia street, which was burned down in an arson fire last year. Brooks has been keeping a list of break-ins downtown and her tally is up to 14 incidents in the past 6 months.
Brooks and Diaz both ended up installing security bars on their windows, which set them back thousands of dollars.
Vallejo businesses have been struggling with an increase in break-ins and have pleaded with the city to help provide additional nighttime security and more lighting to help reduce crime. But many business owners say they go unheard and even blamed by police and city officials, so they’re doing what they can to protect their shops, incurring major costs in security measures and sometimes at great personal risk.
Many business owners have asked Vallejo police for more support or additional patrols. But as Vallejo interim police Chief Jason Ta said during a recent staffing and response report to the City Council, the department is seriously understaffed and having difficulty recruiting qualified officers for one-third of the department’s funded positions.
But even when officers do show up to the scene of a break-in, some business owners have been disappointed with their response. “They kind of made me feel like we did not do enough to prevent the break-in,” said William Bogdanoff, one of the owners of Elvia’s Sazón at the corner of Marin and Georgia streets.
Bogdanoff said that an officer who showed up gave him the impression that he was wasting the officer's time. “But, I did not even call them, it was a neighbor who called, and here they are asking me where my video footage is,” Bogdanoff said. “We are just a small mom-and-pop and it is difficult for us to afford a lot of security equipment.”
After a recent break-in at Urban Cocina at Virginia and Marin streets, owner Jamal Muhammed said that he immediately triggered the alarm and rushed down to his restaurant.
“The police got there pretty quickly,” he said. Later, Muhammed looked at his neighbor’s video footage of that night and realized that the thieves’ vehicle was still parked right across the street while the police were there collecting information for the report. Muhammed shared portions of the security footage on the business instagram account but the case remains unsolved.
The two men took the restaurant’s register, which had about $6 in change in the drawer. The cost of replacing the register and the window repair was covered by insurance but Muhammed and his business partner had to pay $4,000 out of pocket to install bars on their windows.
In his council presentation, Ta said that Vallejo police want to shift more services to the department’s on-line portal.
But filing a police report on-line turned out to be a difficult and frustrating experience for Yvonne Jacobs, owner of My Homestyle Café on Marin Street between York and Georgia streets.
The department rejected her report of a break-in because an officer had not visited the scene. A helpful city employee emailed the department and urged them to accept Jacobs' photos of the broken window as a valid report. But by then, Jacobs' insurance company had already agreed to cover the cost of the window repair and other damages without the police report so she decided not to put any more effort into completing it.
In response to the recent break-ins, a group of business owners calling themselves the Downtown Merchants Coalition (DMC) brought three requests to the Vallejo city council last month: address the large number of vacant storefronts downtown, a nighttime security guard, and more lights at night.
Karen Finlay, who is a member of the group and an owner of Alibi Bookshop, said the empty storefronts and shuttered windows do not paint a picture of a thriving downtown. She said many of the merchants would like the city to step up enforcement of zoning laws that require property owners to utilize their storefronts.
“When people reminisce about old Vallejo they are never talking about big chain stores,” said Finlay. “They are always talking about these beloved mom and pop restaurants and small businesses that make downtowns great.”
Councilmember Charles Palmares, who represents Vallejo’s downtown, said in an email that he hopes to go through the list of vacant properties and have conversations with each property owner to see what’s keeping landlords from renting out their vacant storefronts.
Palmares said his “goal is to have a calendar full of events in downtown to create a consistent flow of foot traffic, which would not only boost local businesses but also naturally deter crime.”
With the understanding that Vallejo police have to prioritize their time, the merchants coalition requested that the city provide additional security to patrol the downtown streets at night.
The city does have night time security guards downtown but they are focused on the City Hall area and the parking lot along the waterfront, according to Tom Bartee, vice-president of the board of the Central Core Restoration Corporation (CCRC).
CCRC provides a daytime security guard downtown, which is funded through a tax they are allowed to collect from downtown businesses through their status as a Property and Business Improvement District. Bartee said that although the organization is funded by the tax, most of that is used up to pay for the daytime security and to support CCRC’s other projects, such as maintaining the planter boxes downtown and running the farmers’ market.
According to Bartee, CCRC applied to use a portion of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to provide more lighting and additional security downtown. At first, he said, the city approved the use of the funds but it was held up because of a legal issue in the language of the funding distribution document. He said that was six months ago and he has not heard anything since then about the funding.
Bartee said sometimes projects that appear to be fairly simple like adding a few lights can get complicated when it comes to implementation.
Business owners have suggested adding more lighting to trees, like those that are currently installed on the 300 block of Georgia Street. But Bartee says that these lights make it difficult for the city to trim the trees and the wiring can abrade the tree bark when the wind blows and make the tree susceptible to disease.
“We also considered uplights that are mounted near the base of the tree and shine up into the branches,” Bartee said. But he said that there can also be problems with this kind of lighting because it can be damaged if someone tries to rig the equipment so they can access the power source.
But while the city and downtown organizations are wading through the process to add lighting and security to downtown's darker streets, business owners are doing their best to find creative ways to manage the situation.
Ken Ingersoll, the owner of Gracie’s BBQ which also broken into recently, put the problem plainly: “Vallejo is trying to attract businesses,” he said, “but how do we expect businesses to make the numbers work on a spreadsheet when they have all this extra overhead spent on security?”
The Vallejo Chamber of Commerce is reviving a program called Vallejo Business Watch, which established local groups throughout Vallejo so business owners can connect through chat groups, email, and in-person meetings to discuss safety and preventative measures.
The Chamber of Commerce is holding a town hall meeting to kick off the project from 6 to 8 p.m. April 6 at USA World Classics, 1525 Sonoma Blvd., Vallejo. Those interested in more information about the event can email email@example.com.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the location of Tony's Cakes.
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THE VALLEJO SUN NEWSLETTER
Investigative reporting, regular updates, events and more
- Tony's Cakes
- Tony Diaz
- Jessica Brooks
- Anchor Pantry
- Vallejo Police Department
- Jason Ta
- Vallejo City Council
- William Bogdanoff
- Elvia's Sazon Mexican Street Food
- Urban Cocina
- Jamal Muhammed
- Yvonne Jacobs
- My Homestyle Cafe
- Downtown Merchants Coalition
- Karen Finlay
- Alibi Bookshop
- Charles Palmares
- Central Core Restoration Corporation
- American Rescue Plan
- Ken Ingersoll
- Vallejo Chamber of Commerce
Ryan Geller writes about transitions in food, health, housing, environment, and agriculture. He covers City Hall for the Vallejo Sun.
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