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Imminently concerned: A local view of eminent domain
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Conference on Redevelopment Abuse
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September 03, 2005
Redevelopment Foes Challenge Oakland Project
Berkeley Daily Planet
“Redevelopment is very simple to understand,” said Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby at Sunday’s community meeting on proposed redevelopment in Oakland. “It’s a land grab by corporate interests, big-box retailers and developers to grab land from people like you.”
“Always run screaming when you hear a politician or a developer call a property ‘underutilized,’” added Oakland preservationist Jane Powell.
“The residents of Oakland who don’t live in redevelopment districts will be picking up the tab,” said Anne Weber, a West Oakland resident.
“You have to start reading and following the issues,” said recent Oakland City Council candidate Pamela Drake, a self-described policy wonk.
Opponents of the proposed new redevelopment district in North Oakland
The meeting was organized by project opponents Bob Brokl and Alfred
One of the catalysts for Sunday’s gathering was the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 23 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, which held that local governments can use eminent domain to force property owners to sell to private developers if a proposed project would benefit the public.
The court ruled that local governments needn’t make a finding of blight, the usual determination for invoking eminent domain for redevelopment, nor does it require a finding that the new project will succeed.
“Redevelopment” is the latest incarnation of what began as “urban renewal” in the late 1940s. It is a program proponents say will salvage run-down urban districts by channeling tax dollars toward projects designed to eliminate “blight.”
The district under consideration would target 800 acres of Oakland immediately south of the Berkeley border—a district many residents say is anything but blighted.
To be granted status as a redevelopment area, the City Council—sitting as the Redevelopment Agency—must make a specific finding that the area is blighted, a term so broadly defined that critics say it is basically meaningless.
Norby, a property rights traditionalist, said he sees redevelopment as a tool of the powerful using the force of the state to benefit the rich at the expense of home and small business owners.
He points to the case of Wal-Mart, which has benefited to the tune of $1 billion in redevelopment projects nationally over the last two decades, including $100 million in California. Sports team owners have won massive concessions under redevelopment, he said, citing the cases of Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis in Oakland and San Diego Charges owner Alex Spanos in San Diego.
“That’s wrong, and you have to stop it,” Norby said.
Land seizures and projects benefiting big box retailers and auto malls have become commonplace, Norby said, because local governments are desperate for sales tax revenues.
“Officials say, ‘We’ve got to get Wal-Mart, otherwise Berkeley or Emeryville or Albany will get it’,” Norby explained.
Of particular concern to many who gathered in the colorful building at 4799 Shattuck Ave. Sunday afternoon was the broad criteria that can be used to declare an area “blighted,” the key finding needed to establish and redevelopment district.
“If you aren’t enjoying your property to its ‘highest use,’ then they can take it,” Norby said. “So basically, you have no property rights.”
One of those who took up the microphone Sunday was John Revelli, whose 56-year-old family-owned tire shop was seized by Oakland’s Redevelopment Agency the day after the Kelo decision.
“It had been a very successful business. We treated out customers very fairly and we thought we could continue in business till we didn’t want to,” Revelli said. “But on July 1, they forced Tony Fung and myself out of business.”
Fung owned the Autohouse, a neighboring car repair business.
“The city said they needed the property to do trenching and soil testing,” Revelli said. “I’ve now joined the ranks of the unemployed, and not by choice.”
Also at the meeting was a contingent from San Jose’s Coalition for Redevelopment Reform, which is battling redevelopment projects in that city.
“We’re here because we’re united on this issue,” said Lorraine Wallace Rowe, the group’s chair. “This is not just an Oakland problem. Redevelopment is not just a local issue. Don’t let anyone fool you.”
Rowe said that after her initial shock at the Kelo decision, she realized the ruling was a powerful tool for redevelopment opponents.
“The court said that it was up to individual states if they wanted to make changes,” she said.
Attending a symposium of the California Redevelopment Association—the umbrella organization for redevelopment districts across the state—she said she heard an organization official declare that Kelo could mean the end to redevelopment in California.
“He said that if state legislation passed banning the taking of property to give it to someone else, they would have no power,” Rowe said, referring to pending legislation by state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks.
McClintock’s bill calls for a statewide referendum on a constitutional amendments that would bar the taking of private property for the benefit of private developers.
Among those in the audience Sunday were aides to several legislators and Oakland City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Nancy J. Nadel, who said she favors redevelopment in her West Oakland District.
Speaking briefly, she said that Sunday’s meeting “is the signal to me that redevelopment is not the necessary tool in this area. ... I’m here to implement what you people want in your community,” a remark that gathered considerable applause.
Rachel Richman, aide to Assemblymember Wilma Chan, D-Oakland, said the meeting was well timed to help her boss consider the legislation. She urged the audience to fax and e-mail legislators about the legislation and to share their own experiences with eminent domain.
Also on hand but not speaking was Taina Gomez, an aide to Assemblymember Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley-Richmond.