Building barriers against crime in San Mateo

San Mateo police want developers and city officials to think about crime prevention when they design and approve buildings — an approach gaining momentum nationwide.

Last week, police Chief Susan Manheimer hosted the first of several workshops to teach property owners and city employees how simple tools such as landscaping, lighting and building upkeep can facilitate crime prevention through environmental design.

For five years, police officers have advised city planners about how construction projects can incorporate these goals. Examples include installing video cameras; adding gates, key pads or thicker doors; eliminating poorly lit alleys or driveways; and planting thorny shrubbery on fences and beneath low windows.

About two years ago, the city developed building codes that impose such guidelines for ATMs, apartment buildings and mixed-use structures, among others. Other strategies, such as designing to facilitate surveillance, remain optional.

Police hope this training will encourage developers and city officials to integrate the doctrine’s principles in their planning.

“If we are educating architects and city planners involved in the design process … then the designs we get are that much easier to approve directly,” said Sgt. Dave Norris.

“This goes beyond just individual projects,” Zoning Administrator Stephen Scott said. “It’s become more of an interdisciplinary look at crime prevention than simply that you need an X3 bolt on this door or a certain species of really thorny rosebush.”

For example, following police input, developers of the Polo Court underground parking project at 20th Street and Elkhorn Court agreed to relocate guest parking inside the security gates, Planning Commissioner Dianne Whitaker said.

Crime-prevention awareness also changed plans for a narrow alley alongside the old police building, which will be converted into apartments.

While the alley looked appropriate for a path to the train station, Harris said it could have let an isolated person become a crime victim. After police discussed alternatives with the developer, Norris said they settled on a gated driveway.

One of the overarching ideas  is “proper natural surveillance,” which means giving police cars an unobstructed view of driveways and alleyways.

“If I was in a patrol car rolling by this on the street,” Norris said, “would I be able to see all the things I need to see to properly prevent crime?”

A pedestrian and bike path currently under consideration raises just such questions. The proposed path would follow a canal along 16th Avenue from the back of Hayward Park Caltrain Station to the Bay Trail.

“It would be wonderful to have a bicycle path there, but I don’t know whether it will work,” Norris said. “There are some long areas of potentially isolated pathway where there’s not a lot of exit points and some turns, so you can’t see all the way down the pathway from one end to the other.”

But others say the trail would be safer in a popular spot.

“If you move the bike trail for safety reasons, but it’s in a less interesting location, then fewer people are going to use it,” Whitaker said.


Approach is not without critics

Launched in the early 1970s, crime prevention through environmental design revolutionized crime prevention by suggesting that criminal behavior is related to the environment.

Criminologists will testify to the results, claiming cities such as Minneapolis, Charlotte, N.C., and Providence, R.I., have experienced huge reductions in crime as a result.

But the approach also has sparked controversy because of the toll it can take on city aesthetics.

“If you just went down the … checklist and followed everything, once it’s built, people would not want to be in that environment,” said Dianne Whitaker, a local architect who sits on the Planning Commission.

San Mateo’s livable-streets plan, which emphasizes building beautiful, tree-lined promenades friendly to walking and biking, could clash with these guidelines, Whitaker said.

“It will be a balance between making a place safe and making it friendly enough that people will want to be there and spend time and shop there,” she said.

Others are less sympathetic.

Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget, calls this approach “a smoke-and-mirrors act that claims to prevent crime by making supposedly public space inaccessible to poor people.”

“Many of the spaces visually seem militarized or otherwise unwelcoming to people who aren’t on the inside [i.e. poor people],” Harris wrote in an email.

According to Raphael Sperry, current president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, the key is moderation.

“Good practitioners try not to make spaces feel like fortresses, but these ideas get simplified really fast, and a lot of times law enforcement gets involved in design and they just want more of everything hard,” Sperry said.

“Hard” features are those designed for security such as thicker materials, less glass, or eliminating trees and plants so police are able to survey everything, Sperry said.

— Niko Kyriakou


Eyes wide open

The following projects include principles of crime prevention through environmental design.

Peninsula Station affordable housing project: Outdoor and garage lighting, gated parking lot, ground-level landscaping eliminates hiding spaces

Kaiser medical office building: Landscaped to eliminate hiding spaces and avoid trees blocking light

Proposed B Street deli: Police considering lighting and removable furniture to prevent a back-door eating area from attracting homeless people and drunks

Rogell Court neighborhood: Graffiti reduction, improved lighting, greater trash pickup, overgrown trees trimmed back

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