Monthly cleanups in the Canal pay off

By Anna McCarthy
Marinscope Newspapers
Published: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 5:02 PM PST

On a recent drizzly Saturday, roughly 20 volunteers formed a circle in a parking lot in San Rafael’s Canal District and one-by-one described why they decided to brave the rain to spend the morning picking up garbage in their neighborhood.

Omar Guerrero, who has lived in the Canal District for the past year and a half, said he hoped the cleanup efforts would convince the city to make permanent changes to the Canal’s parking regulations. “We just want to be on the same level as everyone else,” he said. His feelings were reflected by many others in the group.

Guerrero and others were referring to a strict parking regulation specific to the Canal area that may be repealed by the San Rafael City Council at its Dec. 20 meeting. The Dec. 4 cleanup marked the last of 12 monthly cleanups the community has organized for the past year to prove to city officials that the neighborhood can reduce the amount of garbage in the streets.

Starting around 10 years ago, cars parked during street-sweeping hours would be towed automatically without any tickets or warnings issued beforehand. San Rafael Parking Services Director Vince Guarino said the regulation was imposed because the area was allegedly collecting an unprecedented amount of garbage in its drains, clogging them up. In addition, Guarino said cars were not being moved for street sweepers, making it difficult for Public Works to keep the neighborhood clean.

Until recent budget cuts, street sweeping was scheduled for four days per week in the busiest areas of the Canal, which meant that cars were frequently towed. Retrieving a car after it has been towed can cost hundreds of dollars. Unlicensed drivers must retrieve their vehicle accompanied by a licensed driver, according to San Rafael police representative Margo Rohrbacher. Guarino said the city does not make money off the towing, and only sees fees from citations.

The Canal Alliance, a nonprofit that provides services for the Canal community, has long argued that the rule unfairly targets the immigrant population living in the Canal. “It’s certainly not a fair policy,” said Canal Alliance Executive Director Tom Wilson in a recent interview.

Wilson said the availability of parking and garbage services in the Canal District is the real issue that needs to be resolved. He said building managers in the area often don’t provide enough trash dispensers for the number of residents living in their buildings. Trash that overflows from dumpsters can easily be picked up by the wind and blown into the streets.

However, the community organized to revoke the towing rule about a year ago. A group of Canal residents and members of the Canal Alliance approached city officials and promised to keep the area clean if the city eliminated the rule. In response, the City Council agreed to implement a six-month pilot program to suspend the rule and issue citations instead.

Over that time, city officials looked at the amount of garbage collected when the street sweeper came through, the number of cars ticketed during those times and the number of abandoned vehicles left in the streets. Meanwhile, members of the Canal Alliance’s Youth Concilio and the Vecinos del Canal organized monthly cleanups in the community and held community forums to spread awareness about the trash issue.

The first two cleanups yielded 40 bags of trash, and that number decreased with every month, according to a representative from the Canal Alliance.

But when the pilot program ended in May, city officials reported that the ticketing had not decreased as much as they hoped it would. Rather than make the towing suspension permanent, they decided to extend the pilot program for another six months.

Guarino said the problem stemmed in part from a change in the days and hours of the street sweeping as a result of budget cuts. In January, street sweeping in the Canal was reduced from four days to one day per week. Signage wasn’t immediately updated, and Guarino said the city saw a spike in citations during the first few months after this change.

Wilson said that the extension was frustrating, but the community rose to the challenge. “People were oddly not that disheartened by it,” he said. They redoubled their efforts, culminating in the final cleanup on Dec. 4.

Guarino said all the community’s efforts have “really had an impact on the amount of trash in the neighborhood.” Unless the item is taken off the council’s Dec. 20 consent calendar, Guarino said the suspension of the towing rule will likely be made permanent. He said that Public Works, parking services and the San Rafael Police Department all support the change. “It’s one of those win-win things,” he said.

Contact Anna McCarthy at amccarthy@marinscope.com.