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Conference on Redevelopment Abuse
San Jose, California. 95103
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March 06, 2005
A Blight on Urban Renewal
- by Carol Lloyd, special to SF Gate
Last week, I wrote about Kelo vs. New London, the recent U.S. Supreme Court case in which a Connecticut woman is fighting against her city's right to seize her home to make way for a large private development. The increasing use of eminent domain for economic development (in which the government seizes your property to give or sell it to a private developer) has come under scrutiny as cities around the country have resorted to using this power--or, more often, the threat of it--as they scramble for ways to increase their tax base by luring retail, hotel, office and high-density residential projects.
Like the proverbial tale of the kitten in the well, accounts of average folk losing their homes or businesses will always get my attention, but, unlike most stories of feline tragedy, quick on the heels of my heartfelt sympathy comes a more selfish concern: could it happen here?
The good news is that California law doesn't allow cities and counties to simply seize any piece of property and hand it over to a private developer--which is what happened in New London. Here, the city or country must first declare that the property is part of a "blighted area" and a "redevelopment-project area."
The bad news is that such laws aren't much of a deterrent if a city is dead set on redeveloping your neighborhood. Moreover, by playing fast and loose with the definition of blight, many California cities have managed to turn all sorts of areas into redevelopment zones, thereby making them vulnerable to eminent domain for private development.
In the Bay Area, many cities have battles brewing around eminent domain and redevelopment. Daly City, for example, is debating the virtues and sins of creating a redevelopment zone for a cliffside neighborhood, where catastrophic bluff failures have occurred as a result of heavy rains and surf and the city must spend millions to stave off soil erosion. Although the city memo floating the idea explicitly suggests that this redevelopment area not include the power of eminent domain, neighborhood activists remain unconvinced. They worry that the real purpose of such a zone is to erect hotels or high-end housing along the attractive coastal corridor.
Martinez is also in the midst of a redevelopment controversy wherein some residents fear that adding the city's decision to include their downtown neighborhood to a redevelopment zone will in the end lead to the loss of their homes to big development. And last Tuesday, a few San Francisco property owners, justifiably fearing they might be vulnerable to eminent domain in the SOMA redevelopment area along Sixth Street, rallied outside City Hall to protest the 2003 designation of their properties as blighted.
But the most aggressively redevelopment-happy city in the region (if not the state) has to be San Jose. In 2002, the city declared a full third of its area "blighted" to create one massive merged redevelopment zone. In the process, city officials defined blight in ways Kafka would appreciate. In Naglee Park, a historic neighborhood consisting mostly of Victorians and Craftsman single-family homes near downtown, instances of blight included "wet leaves" on the tennis court at Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren's home, visible garbage cans sitting on the curb on trash day and architectural iron work on windows of restored Victorians categorized as security bars. Outraged residents had a field day with the issue and wrote "bliku" protest poems that were published in the San Jose Mercury-News.
But Stephen Haase, director of planning, building and code enforcement for the City of San Jose, whose office was in charge of "supporting findings of blight" to create the redevelopment zone, says the city isn't interested in seizing people's homes. "The fear is greater than the act itself," he adds. "Examples of condemning individual buildings are very, very rare."
Haase says many neighborhoods were included in the redevelopment zone to help them, not to hinder them. He adds that the city wants greater power to enforce building codes, many of which have been flouted in neighborhoods with conspicuous overcrowding and substandard construction. He also contends that the mega-redevelopment zone was created as a way of shifting precious funds into residential areas.
"The idea was to invest in the neighborhoods," Haase explains. Because redevelopment agencies reap the benefits of all increased property-tax increments after a development has been built, he says, including neighborhoods in a redevelopment zone makes that money available for neighborhood improvement.
But for Beth Shafran Mukai, a homeowner in Naglee Park who now sits on the redevelopment zone's project-area committee (PAC), the cost of this potential funding is far too high. "The fact that we may be subject to eminent domain goes on all of our titles, and it becomes something to disclose," she says. "There's a provision that says the city may exercise eminent domain. It becomes a question: 'Do I really own my home?'"
According to Loraine Wallace Rowe, a local landlord and the chairperson of San Jose's Coalition for Redevelopment Reform, redevelopment zones are not the answer. "I want property to be in good condition," she says. "But I don't think the way to get around it is to give an agency a blanket power. It isn't very American." She says other homeowner hassles may surface as part of a redevelopment zone: "You have to go through an extra layer of bureaucracy if you want to do something to your home." And all these extra strictures, she adds, only strengthens the government's hand if it has designs on your property.
After the inclusion of Naglee Park in San Jose's redevelopment zone in 2002, residents voted to have it removed. But three years later, according to Shafran-Mukai, the paperwork is still in process. Despite assurances from city officials that no one is eyeing her house to build, say, a condo high-rise, Shafran-Mukai knows that her neighborhood could certainly yield higher taxes. "We're at the edge of the downtown frame," she says. "These are single-family homes built in the late 1800s. It's definitely not the 'highest use' for the city's housing."
Indeed, it's the downtown residents around the Bay Area who seem to feel most vulnerable to the wrecking balls of redevelopment. Lynda Kilday, who lives in downtown Martinez, knows she has some prime real estate, especially in a city--sandwiched between railroad tracks, refineries, steep hills and a freeway--where there is little land to develop.
"My home is 100 years old, and it's right behind the county administration building. Because I've lived here so long, my taxes are low," she says, adding that many of her neighbors are retirees. "It's also a special place. We can walk downtown and to the marina, and we have wonderful views of the Carquinez Straits."
For all those who fear being included in a redevelopment zone, the process of learning how redevelopment can change your neighborhood and your property rights is formidable.
"We don't know what they want to do," says Daly City cliffside resident Melissa Farley, having just returned from a city council meeting on the issue (the council also acts as the redevelopment board). "We're hoping that we can stop it before that train goes down the track," she says. "But it's so complicated, and that's part of its insidiousness."
Eminent domain cases like those in New London involving single-family houses are extremely rare in the Bay Area. But there have been a fair amount of such cases affecting small businesses--from the Tropicana, an ethnic grocery shopping mall in San Jose (whose owner spent more than a million dollars in legal fees fighting to keep his property) to a Daly City auto shop. Small businesses and landlords with modest properties will always be the most vulnerable to government redevelopment projects because they are located in commercial zones where the most room for intensifying density often exists.
So, are all these concerned homeowners and businesspeople simply antigrowth NIMBYs with too much time on their hands? Though I'm sure that's how many city officials feel, the history of redevelopment in this state has been so heinous that it's no wonder a growing body of neighborhood activists have vilified the very concept of eminent domain. And despite the fact that this Godzilla has not arrived to destroy their homes, they see its shadow looming in the distance, and they've come out swinging. This response may seem paranoid, but in an era when city coffers increasingly resemble Mother Hubbard's cupboards, the concern about eminent domain, for those living or operating businesses out of "underperforming" properties, is real.
Ironically, the abuse of eminent domain is the dark side of what I've been sporadically advocating in this column since its beginning five years ago: to embrace development and housing density in the inner cities. If we're not going to become a vast L.A.-like region of suburban sprawl, we need urban--and suburban--infill. We need city centers and transit zones to be "upzoned" to make room for denser housing, offices and hotels on top of what's now exclusively retail alleys.
But why does eminent domain have to be part of the equation (except in circumstances of real blight)? Sometimes it seems that cities are abusing (rather than judiciously using) the tools of redevelopment--with its promise of higher taxes and accelerated change and its power to float bonds--like it is a designer drug invented for desperate government officials. In the eagerness to "clean up" and "fix" the city with mega-plans, these officials need to remember that the greatest urban centers are unkempt places--patchworks of thoughtful planning and unpredictable accident, large-scale creations looking toward the future and smaller relics echoing the past.
Like the little string of old houseboats on Mission Creek in the center of the massive new Mission Bay development in San Francisco, keeping the people and businesses who actually have a history of occupying and loving a place is not only humane, it's good urban planning.Posted by Coalition Webbies at March 6, 2005 04:14 PM