So after the late-night dust settled at the most recent Merced City Council meeting, when Councilwoman Bertha Perez survived a censure consideration that was tied to complaints of misbehavior in the public eye — and both supporters and critics of the leader had their say — another contentious issue surfaced in the chamber.
It involved a months-long debate at City Hall over the future of a small pathway — a convenient shortcut, if you will — between Main Street and the parking lots on the south side of 18th Street, between M and Canal.
On one side, there’s an owner of an on-site office building who is sick and tired of the filth, vandalism, drug use and signs of homelessness that the walkway can attract — especially at night or in the early morning. The owner’s tenants — including the United Way of Merced County — also say the city has neglected the walkway that is in need of proper lighting and beautification. Together, they plan to solve their problem by remodeling the entire passageway, creating a full-service “community” restaurant and bar area, and gating off the walkway at night.
However, there’s a catch. The city has hold of a decades-old public easement on the property that originally created the “Arbor Walkway” and its public right of way.
So in order to develop the site, the property owner petitioned the city for building permits and negotiated for an abandonment of the easement.
According to Dwight Larks, a local real estate broker who says he represents the company that owns the property, the plans were initially met with approval from various city departments early last spring. And, indeed, on April 21, the city’s Planning Commission adopted a finding noting that the vacation of the easement “does not conflict with any General Plan policies, text, or maps.”
Soon the Arbor Walkway was blocked off with a construction fence, and remodeling work began.
However, as the summer weather heated up, so did discussion on the topic.
On the other side, some Main Street business people — concerned about parking, convenience and customer traffic — started to say “not so fast.” They included — Tim Razzari who is linked to the ownership of the historic Shaffer Building that creates the brick wall side of the Arbor Walkway.
In order to vacate a public easement, some argued, the City Council has to make a finding that the public no longer benefits from its use.
All significant sides apparently sought legal counsel, and a public hearing in June was continued to August, and then September, and then to the last City Council meeting on Nov. 1.
Meanwhile, Larks contacted the Times with updates on the process. He said the first stage of the remodeling was about half complete after about six months of the Arbor Walkway being fenced off. And he pointed out that calls for police service due to disturbances in the walkway — which he says was a common occurrence — were no longer happening.
But Larks said the intention was not to close the walkway off to the public. He was adamant about creating a “commissary” kitchen that would not only serve the public, but also incorporate programs by local nonprofit organizations who plan to use the space for events and fundraisers, as well as for job training programs.
“We are just looking forward to improving the downtown and providing new food and beverage options,” he said. “The easement is not appropriate for downtown. What’s appropriate for downtown are more restaurants, more establishments — not open areas that you can’t do anything with.”
At the Nov. 1 meeting, city staff presented leaders with some options to consider, including a complete vacation of the city easement, a complete denial of the abandonment request, or a partial vacation that would leave a narrower unobstructed path for the public.
Real estate broker, Erin Hamm, urged the city to keep control of the easement.
“My biggest point as a downtown business person, and with our downtown neighbors, and I believe we are a great community, is that it is a right of way for the public,” she said. “Well it’s been closed for many months, and it’s been inconvenient. But more than that, the Arbor Walkway has a lot of character and I think a lot of people respect that about it. Tony’s Courtyard Cafe has business over it. Kelli’s, Leighton’s, the Second Time Around Book Store, and it’s inconvenient for businesses that are down there and there’s no parking, and you can’t get back and forth, and you got the Lofts, and I don’t think we really want people to be directed through our alleyways. We have so many great things going on downtown. Certainly this could be part of the downtown beautification you have talked about. I don’t think we are opposed to gates at all. We are opposed to a single entity controlling the walkway. We would like to see it stay with the city so that we are assured that the citizens of Merced are able to continue to utilize it.”
A legal representative who sat with Razzari during the meeting stepped up to the podium and said the city was basically increasing the leasable area of a private citizen’s property. He pointed out that the city’s Redevelopment Agency paid $95,000 for the easement back in the 1980s.
“You are not allowed to just give this away,” he said. “You have to say the public interest is being served. You would be terminating an easement that somebody paid a landowner $95,000 for. There is value here. That’s one of the major issues. … Maybe a business owner can come to you next week and say, “I would like to close off the sidewalk in front of my business every night starting at 6 p.m. So I can move my business out into the sidewalk, so nobody can walk on the sidewalk anymore. This is a pathway. It’s a walkway from parking to city businesses. … It’s been an easement on the books for years, and the current property owner had full knowledge that it was there. … The owner gave up the right to use that land for private purposes, and got $95,000 to do it. So if you think it’s appropriate to take a walking path from the community away, and give it to a private citizen because you believe they are going to have a really cool development … (pause) … I’m just telling you that you don’t have that ability. There has to be a finding that the public does not need this.”
For his part, Razzari warned the council that a vacation of an easement that has community benefits would create the potential for legal action.
He reiterated his stance that the entire community would be better served by keeping the open-air walkway that connects downtown businesses in a positive way.
He added, “One guy, one bar, convinces the rest of town? I don’t think so.”
Larks fired back that the Shaffer Building was in desperate need of improvements and perhaps the owners should take care of that first before interfering with plans to commercialize the Arbor Walkway. He said construction on the restaurant project has been delayed and costs are rising while the issue is being debated.
Larks also offered the city another option: A 4-foot section of pathway right down the middle of the restaurant seating area that could be used as a pedestrian pathway with dining tables on either side. Abandonment of the easement, however, would still be on the table.
Later, during a phone interview with the Times, Larks also pointed out an interesting point of view on the issue.
“I find it incredibly interesting that the El Capitan Hotel was able to purchase a walkway adjacent to their property for only $10, and gate it off completely, yet we are being treated differently.”
The Times has not investigated this claim; however, an open public walkway with murals did exist between Main Street and the City Hall parking lot on 18th Street and behind the old El Capitan. It has since been gated off, and serves as an access point for the El Capitan’s services and a new wine bar that is reportedly going to open up.
At the end of the discussion on Nov. 1, Mayor Matthew Serratto urged all parties to come up with a win-win situation. Following a suggestion by City Manager Stephanie Dietz, the City Council voted 4-1 to deny the vacation of the easement, and to direct staff to come back at a future meeting with an amendment to the existing right-of-way agreement that provides for a negotiated change of access and allows for gates.
Councilman Fernando Echevarria voted NO. Councilman Jesse Ornales abstained from the proceedings because he works in one of the offices near the walkway.