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Redevelopment Should Be Reincarnated in Cities' General Plans

Morris Newman on
Jan 10, 2012

It's taken me a few days to absorb the California Supreme Court decision in California Redevelopment Association v. Matosantos, which effectively killed redevelopment in California. Although I was a longtime critic of isolated cases of abuse, it believe it was a huge mistake to relegate the entire institution to the glue factory of failed policies.

Wiser heads at CP&DR maintain that a creative compromise is possible that would allow redevelopment to survive in some altered form. But if redevelopment is dead, then, what can cities do to build up their downtown areas and attract business?

My proposal: Planning and design. Cities should use their next general plan updates—the process by which most California cities think about their futures—as the chief way of determining the way the city should look and function. 

Here are my suggestions, naïve or not:

1) Adopt a vision statement, e.g. "We want a walkable downtown area full of large and small merchants that places a priority on historic ‘fabric' and regional character."

2) The vision statement should identify the most important parcels suitable for infill development. Residential mixed-use (including low income and senior housing) and transit orientation are big plusses.  

3) This is potentially controversial:  Cities should stick with their general plans, and not give them away to WalMart, Costco or a developer who's touting a sports stadium or convention center hotel. Difficult? Probably, but if cities are not willing to stick to their own plans, they can't control their future.

4) Even more controversial:  Cities must be willing to buy land and/or property at market rate (as opposed to through eminent domain). The purpose, of course, is to convey the parcels at below-market rates to developers who agree to build what the city needs, i.e. a specialty grocery, plus a chain drug store, 20 "in-line" merchants, at least half of which would be local mom-and-pop retailers, plus some housing within walking distance of a transit station. If cities don't have the cash, they still have some bonding authority. The developer can agree to pay the debt service on those bonds for three years or so, prior to the completion of the new development , so the city ends up revenue neutral on the deal.  (The cash value of the discount price on the land would be equal to money spent on debt service.)

The real test here, of course, is whether local governments can "sell" new development to their constituents.  And that's a different bucket of eels entirely.