When voters in Orange County approved the creation of the 1,300-acre Orange County Great Park out of the shuttered Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, they had every reason to believe the estimated $1.2 billion cost would come, partially, from redevelopment monies. Such was the status quo in 2002.
Since then, the self-described "first great metropolitan park of the 21st century" has run into a problem that is itself becoming the hallmark of the 21st century: lack of funds, specifically $1.4 billion in redevelopment funds. Reports indicate that construction of the Great Park may drag on indefinitely. Great Park officials attempted to claw back some former redevelopment monies, arguing that such an iconic project should not be left unfunded. Irvine had asked for a temporary restraining order to prevent the taking of funds earmarked for the park, but those attempts were rejected by a Superior Court judge in June.
Though may be one of the biggest casualties of the demise of redevelopment, the Great Park is but one of untold hundreds of park and open space projects statewide that are not iconic and are suffering similar fates.
Long a part of redevelopment agencies' efforts to combat blight, parks frequently received redevelopment funds, and parks departments frequently partnered with redevelopment agencies. They did so under the theory that parks could not only directly combat blight by replacing derelict properties with clean, safe, useable spaces, but also by making entire neighborhoods more attractive.
Now, the weeds are only going to keep growing in spaces where parks would have gone.
"It's the loss you have of not only the agency and its ability to be nimble, but also its staff and its knowledge, the staff, and the community contacts they have," said Los Angeles Recreation and Parks planner Darryl Ford, of the demise of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency. "That's going to be, over time, a big hurdle to get past."
Like hundreds of its counterparts statewide, LA/CRA played a key role in developing new parks because within redevelopment project areas it could act not only as a funder but also as a developer.
"CRA was an implementing entity, so not only could they apply for them, but also build the park," said Sian Leong, director of development and marketing at the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative. "Because of that, they were uniquely poised to be able to deliver real results that sometimes the city, because of limited capacity, can't always provide."
That kind of assertiveness, said Leong, is crucial in a city that has historically had trouble shoehorning open spaces into dense, needy neighborhoods—places where new parks are often considered not amenities but, in fact, necessities.
"Some of our neighborhoods are so densely built and compacted that there isn't that green space available," said Leong.
In other cases, their contributions have been somewhat opaque, because city parks and recreation departments affix their name to all of the properties under their management. But in many cases, redevelopment monies were part of a vast mix of local and state funds that parks departments cobble together to develop new facilities.
Even when redevelopment contributed only fractions of a project's budget, it was often considered crucial.
"(It) was really devastating because we get tons of leverage out of $500,000 when we're doing park improvements," said J.P. Tindell, manager of park planning and development services for the City of Sacramento Parks and Recreation.
Tindell said that sometimes redevelopment money could be the first money spent on a project—and therefore it could serve as the impetus for winning further funds from other sources.
"When we get other people's money—redevelopment CBDG, grants--I always spend somebody else's money first," said Tindell. "I protect my own money and spend other people's money, so I don't leave that money sitting because I don't know if it's going to be there again."
The City of Long Beach followed a similar strategy.
"Redevelopment has always been a big part of that, if for no other reason than to provide matching funds," said Robert Zur-Schmiede, deputy director of Development Services for the City of Long Beach.
Even individual departments cannot even tell how many projects will be affected by the loss of redevelopment.
"We had earmarked redevelopment funding for certain projects, but none of it had been appropriated by Council action," said Deborah Sharpe, provisional supervisor of long-range park planning at the City of San Diego Park and Recreation Department. "That's why it's hard to put your finger on exactly how many projects are going to be affected."
Sharpe said that some clear impacts include the loss of funding for streetscape improvements surrounding the department's North Park Mini-Park. On the other end of the spectrum, the large Pershing Square Sports Complex was supposed to take the place of a city maintenance yard. But without redevelopment funds to relocate the maintenance yard, the sports park is all but dead, according to Sharpe.
Sharpe added that planned parks in the downtown area were intended to complement a projected residential population increase in the tens of thousands. Properties had been set aside but were not on the city's approved Recognized Obligation Payment Schedule and therefore could be sold off—even though the city's master plan says that the parks are necessary to support the population increase.
Bakersfield Economic Development Director Donna Kunz said that her city had been pursuing a similar strategy.
"Redevelopment has been a major player in park development since its inception," said Kunz. "If you want to attract a 24-hour downtown you have to have residential development….have to have the same amenities that they're going to get out there in suburbia."
In San Jose, Park Manager David Mitchell estimated that redevelopment contributed roughly $25 million to a current capital budget of $200 million total. He highlighted Guadalupe Gardens, near the San Jose/Mineta Airport, which would have covered dozens of acres at full build-out.
"It's a blow in the sense of providing a destination place to come to ," said Mitchell. "When you go past the airport….you see vacant land instead of seeing a vibrant park."
On an even larger scale, the Hunters Point project – a massive mixed-use redevelopment in San Francisco – is relying on redevelopment funding to develop its open space. Fortunately, for the city, all of the redevelopment funds for those projects were secured prior to dissolution. Had the project been approved even a few months later, it might have been a vastly different story.
"(RDA funds were) totally crucial," said Wells Lawson, project manager at the successor to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency. "For Hunters Point, it's the largest park construction project since Golden Gate park….parks are parks; they're really important for civic life and are the picture of sustainability and…of the city."
As with all projects formerly related to redevelopment, cities and other agencies are now turning to other sources of funding. Two of the major sources of state funding, however, are about to dry up. Proposition 1C and Proposition 84 both included funds for open space and parks, but most of those funds have been disbursed already.
Without abundant supplies of seed money, from redevelopment and other sources, cities may have to rely on nonprofit partnerships or simply put parks projects on hold indefinitely.
"Ultimately a lot of that gap is going to be filled in by more nonprofit organizations; the public planning and park functions and community beautification functions…..will sort of be filled in over time," said Ford.
Darryl Ford, Management Analyst, Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, 213.202.2633
Donna Kunz, Bakersfield Economic Development Director, 661.326.3765
Sian Leong, Director of Development, Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative, 213.627.1822
David Mitchell, Park Manager, City of San Jose Parks and Recreation, 408.535.3500
Deborah Sharpe, Supervisor of Long-Range Park Planning (Provisional), City of San Diego Park and Recreation Department, 619.525.8213
J.P. Tindell, Manager of Park Planning and Development Services, City of Sacramento Parks and Recreation, 916.808.7523
Robert Zur-Schmiede, Deputy Director of Development Services for the City of Long Beach, 562.570.5237