Redevelopment plans in downtown San Bernardino appear to be advancing after many years of fits and starts.

In January, proponents of a plan to replace an older neighborhood with a 44-acre lake won two lawsuits over the project. In February, LNR Properties, a subsidiary of homebuilding giant Lennar Corp., acquired a long-struggling mall. The developer plans to build at least 900 housing units on the site. Meanwhile, the city’s redevelopment agency is actively acquiring and assembling land for a 200-unit, live-work loft project.

The lake project may be the most ambitious of the downtown efforts, and it is by far the most controversial. Eight years ago, the city, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District and the Inland Valley Development Agency formed a joint powers authority (JPA) to carry out the project. The proposal has evolved over the years from a giant reservoir, to a series of small lakes and canals, to the project that was approved last year.

The approved north lake area project calls for scraping clean an 82-acre, 16-block area on the north end of downtown, just east of the 215 freeway. A 44-acre lake, parks, 72 houses and 12 acres of commercial development would replace the existing neighborhood. The 53-acre south lake area project lies about 11 blocks south. It involves a 5-acre lake/wetlands area, and development of about 500,000 square feet of offices, retail stores and restaurants. The area is now the site of aging industrial buildings and houses, and the city’s redevelopment agency already has considerable holdings there.

For the north lake project, the water district is responsible for acquiring property and relocating residents and businesses. The project would displace about 1,300 people living in 475 housing units, and about 50 businesses. The area is impoverished, blighted and crime-ridden, according to project backers, who cite a variety of census and police statistics to support their claims. The lake project is a needed step toward renewal of the downtrodden area, said Patrick Milligan, president of the water district’s board.

Others are skeptical.

James Mulvihill, a geography and planning professor at California State University, San Bernardino, said that the project follows the disproven “urban renewal” model, in which poor, aged and disabled people are displaced for to make room for more desirable people.

“It would be an absolute embarrassment if San Bernardino actually carried through on this,” Mulvihill said. “We’ll be the poster child for 1950s-style redevelopment in the 21sth Century.”

Area residents filed two lawsuits. One charged that the city failed to identify adequate replacement housing and that the project relied on outdated real estate information. The other lawsuit challenged the project’s environmental impact report, including its handling of historic structures. In January, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge John Wade issued a tentative ruling against project opponents in both lawsuits.

The opponents’ attorney, Louis Goebel, said he was awaiting a final judgment, but said that appeals were likely.

“Our people would like to not have it happen at all,” Goebel said of the north lake project. “They are very happy there. They love their homes.”

Other avenues are available for fighting the project, Goebel added. For one, the JPA has yet to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS) required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Documents suggest that two of the reasons for building the lake — cleaning up tainted groundwater and resolving problems with high groundwater — are bogus, according to Goebel. Water district and city officials dispute those contentions.

The project’s heavy reliance on eminent domain also presents a potential problem because state lawmakers are considering changes to how and when public agencies may use eminent domain.

Not all locals oppose the project, though. Walter Jarman, president of the NAACP’s San Bernardino chapter, said the organization is concerned about the impact on long-time residents. But, Jarman recalled, years ago Old Pasadena was a derelict district that people avoided. Now it is a national model of urban development.

“I know something needs to happen here in San Bernardino regarding the living conditions and the whole gamut of problems that are in existence,” Jarman said. “But somebody always loses.”

John Hoeger, the JPA’s project manager, said a relocation plan for the north lake project is nearly complete. The federal EIS is scheduled to be complete in January 2007. It is required because the water district intends to use federal funds to acquire property, Hoeger explained.

The water district has secured about $20 million in federal funds for the project and hopes to get more. The entire project is expected to cost at least $150 million. Once the lake and other public improvements are complete, it will be up to the Economic Development Agency (the city’s redevelopment arm) to encourage adjacent housing and commercial development.

The south lake project is not as far along. The city and its redevelopment agency, not the water district, will be in charge.

Between the two proposed lakes lies the Carousel Mall, which has been dying a slow death since the mid 1990s and is now mostly an office building. Numerous entities have taken a run at refurbishing or replacing the mall, but nothing has happened. The mall’s acquisition by LNR has given the city hope, said Colin Strange, a project manager for the Economic Development Agency.

“We’re very happy, and we’re very comfortable,” said Strange, who noted that LNR has asked for no public agency participation in the project so far. “They have long-range plans for either converting the mall or tearing it down, and creating, for want of a better word, an ‘urban village’ there.”

Preliminary plans call for 900 to 1,100 housing units, along with retail and office development, according to Strange, who said the project would complement the new lakes. The mall and north lake project should spur new investment in the 20 blocks between the two projects, Strange said. Already, the city’s redevelopment agency is working with Watson & Associates on a 200-unit, live-work project in the area. The project site is next to a fairly new, city-built senior citizens center on 5th Street.

John Hoeger, lakes project joint powers authority, (909) 384-5133.
Colin Strange, San Bernardino Economic Development Agency, (909) 663-1044.
James Mulvihill, CSU San Bernardino, (909) 537-5522.
Walter Jarman, NAACP San Bernardino Chapter, (909) 887-7411.
Louis Goebel, lake project opponents attorney, (619) 239-2611.