Cesar Zepeda: Building Community in Richmond

January 5, 2016


How do you build and engage the community?  That is the question many have asked.  There are several ways to bring the community together; with the right vision, leadership, and commitment, the Hilltop District community has come back to life.  As several people have said “Hilltop is back on the map”.

It started with a conversation and careful listening.  We talked about bringing change and getting things done in our community; accountability, community engagement and building, making our community a destination and not a thoroughfare, and most importantly making our community feel like home.  We engaged the City Council and just about every City department to share our vision and let them know we wanted to provide the guidance and help shape the future of our community. 

We started out by creating the Hilltop District Homeowners & Stakeholders Association (HDHSA), a year and a half ago.  Then we created the Hilltop District Neighborhood Council (HDNC), a year ago.  The HDHSA would bring together the residents and businesses; our homes are so close to the business district, and we share the Special Assessment fee that it only made sense to work together.  The HDHSA became the oversight committee for the $1Mill Special Assessment’s budget.  The HDNC originally was only going to take over the inactive Country Club Vista Neighborhood Council (CCVHC).  We ended up taking over the CCVHC, and then we saw another adjacent Neighborhood council that had been inactive, and its residents underrepresented for several years: the Bay View Neighborhood Council (BVNC).  We incorporated the BVNC area into our Hilltop District Neighborhood Council.  And finally we gave a Neighborhood Council and a voice, to the rest of Hilltop that did not have any representation.

Lots of ideas and conversations were had, and we started working on several projects at once.  

One of our first tasks was to figure out how many employees worked for the Hilltop Landscape Maintenance District (HLMD); the Special Assessment is what pays for and created the HLMD. We purchased an online electronic system that tracks hours and projects for the employees.  Once we figured out how many employees we had, what exactly we were paying for, and who we were paying for, we created a task list of all the projects that needed to be done.   

The first project was to finalize the Vista Del Mark Park; it was started 16 years ago and never completed.  This is what we named the park on the corner of Richmond Parkway and San Pablo Avenue.  The park now has new irrigation, plants, trees, and lighting. It took research to find out what parts of the irrigation needed to be fixed or changed.  All the light pole bases were vacant, and were fixed to be able to support the light poles that were purchased. 

Since the park has been completed, the businesses in the area have reported an increase in revenue, partly due to people coming out and walking around and using the park.  This was a great success to the community; now people have a place to go walk their dogs, enjoy the great views of San Pablo Bay, then grab their morning coffee or dinner.  

There is one piece of the park that is not complete yet. Chevron is working on a project, which will be completed by early spring.  In order for Chevron to be given the approval from the Design Review Board (DRB), we asked that they install an ADA compliant sidewalk on the San Pablo Avenue side.  We have several residents in wheelchairs that will greatly benefit from not having to go into oncoming traffic when using San Pablo Avenue.  This will help our residents safely get to the park, and other areas of our neighborhood. 


Another condition to receive the DRB approval was for Chevron to find out who owned the memorial that has been on their fence for over 10 years.  Chevron and I looked everywhere to find the owner.  The City said they could remove the memorial, as they usually do after a memorial has been up for some time.  I let them know that our intent was not to remove it. I did not know who's memorial it was, or the reason for it.  All I knew is that it was somebody's son or daughter, brother or sister, friend, neighbor, and that this person was very much loved.  You see that love come across in all the decorations and balloons placed on the memorial; decorations changed weekly. 

Chevron was able to locate the owner, and we now know who’s memorial it is and the reason for it.  This young man, who died all too soon due to a drunk driver accident, his memorial will become part of the park and the greater vision for the theme of the Vista Del Mar Park.  The theme is: our history, we will have art commemorating the history of Richmond, and the memorial will hopefully provide perspective to those visiting the park to make sure they are safe on the road. 

We build community, not by removing that which we do not know.  But by taking the time to know and understand. 

Other tasks that the HDHSA and HDNC took on allowed us to finish projects that were started and never finished, due partly to what I would call the invisible-community-effect: lack of or minimal representation and a voice. 

Projects included getting the City to re-install downed light poles that had been down for over 8 years. This will provide light all around the district, to help deter crime and provide safety to the residents.

We built a Parks Yard at Hilltop, where our HLMD employees store their equipment instead of having to drive downtown to pick up their tools to work.  This would allow for increased productivity and would save the City between $70K and $80K a year. 

To make sure people know we are here, we now have approval for the Hilltop Gateway signs.  They will be installed off of the I-80 exits on Hilltop Drive and Richmond Parkway.  This is part of the re-branding and re-marketing of our area.  These signs will welcome people to our District and City.

In our combined Neighborhood Council and Association meetings we talk about our community wants and needs, our goals, tasks, and how to continue moving forward with our vision.  We formed a committee to pursue a grocery store to come into our neighborhood.  Another committee is working on bringing art to our streets and parks. We have the Hilltop Drive Beautification Committee, in charge of landscaping Hilltop Drive and making it welcoming and appealing.  Our Park Enhancement Committee is working on a plan to connect all our parks, so that people can go from one side of Hilltop all the way to the Point Pinole Park, via our many parks, while enjoying the art on the streets and inside the parks. 

Can’t forget the Hilltop Mall Revitalization Committee, this committee will be very involved with making sure the new mall owner hears community input, and that the new development becomes part of the greater vision for our community. 

We will have more community events in our neighborhood in 2016.  We believe that community events help bring neighbors out to meet each other, further allowing for the community to be engaged and together. 

Our Neighborhood Council and Association firmly believe that we can only thrive when we help each other out.  For this reason we have helped, with resources and time, other communities around the City: Parkchester, with their park rebuild; North and East, with Kennedy Park; Santa Fe, with their Santa Fe Union Park; and the 23rd Street Merchants with clean up of the Cinco De Mayo Parade; removing tall dry grass from neighboring communities to prevent fires, just to name a few.

Together we build a stronger community.  Together, as once City and one community, we thrive. 

For more information on the HDHSA or HDNC, please visit our website at www.hdhsa.com

By: Cesar Zepeda
Hilltop District Neighborhood Council
Hilltop District Homeowners & Stakeholders Association


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