Debate on eminent domain calls into question structure of 60-year-old agency
As the debate over the use of eminent domain continues in court cases and on the upcoming ballot, Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco, feels now is the time to see whether city redevelopment agencies are still functioning as designed.
In 1945, California passed the Redevelopment Act, which allows cities to create such agencies to transform blighted areas into new sites that serve the public good, including schools, roads, housing and — more recently — commercial sites that provide substantial tax revenues to city coffers. Nearly 60 years later, Mullin thinks the structure deserves serious analysis.
“It wouldn’t hurt to take reappraisal and see if there’s some readjustment that could be made, or whether some other type of structure would work better,” Mullin said. “It’s an open question.”
Mullin, chair of the Assembly’s Housing and Community Development Commission, hasn’t established a wish list of proposed changes.
His thirst for re-examination has been sparked in part by state Senator Christine Kehoe’s pending eminent domain bill, which would require redevelopment agencies to “spell out when, where and how local officials will use eminent domain to condemn property,” according to Peter Detwiler, consultant for the Senate’s Local Government Committee.
Each year, redevelopment projects generate approximately $32billion in economic activity and create 310,000 jobs, according to John Shirey, director of the California Redevelopment Association. Each dollar a city spends on redevelopment earns roughly $14.
Redevelopment has occurred all across the Peninsula, creating landmarks such as the cluster of biotechnology firms in South San Francisco and revitalizing downtown areas in San Mateo and, soon, Redwood City.
Officials in those cities see some opportunities to improve the redevelopment laws.
“I think some aspects, like eminent domain, have been abused, but the legislature is trying to deal with those abuses by making changes,” San Mateo Community Development Director Bob Beyer said.
Redwood City Mayor Barbara Pierce thinks it’s important for redevelopment agencies to become more sensitive and responsive to community values when redeveloping a site.
“We have to be careful about taking the next step and imagining, ‘If we make this change, what will the impact be?’” she said.
Teaching citizens what redevelopment agencies are and what they do would be helpful in defusing often emotional debates about the agencies’ activities, Shirey said.
Mullin said he would like to enable redevelopment agencies to prevent blight before it “hits bottom.”
“Maybe one of the roles could be to intervene and reverse it, if possible,” he said.