Alhambra has been heralded by some in the business community as an example of redevelopment done right. Recent articles in the Pasadena Star-News/San Gabriel Tribune have highlighted the creation of jobs through the city’s redevelopment efforts. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation recently named Alhambra the “most business friendly city in all of Los Angeles County.”
But what is peculiar about these accolades is they tend to originate from businesses, developers, and the Alhambra Redevelopment Agency itself. And what’s conspicuously missing is input from the residents, workers, and other government agencies. A closer look at the Alhambra Redevelopment Agency (ARA) provides some perspective on why this may be the case.
No one can argue the true goals of California’s redevelopment agency: to remedy blight, build affordable housing, generate good paying jobs, and improve the quality of life of its residents. Unfortunately, in Alhambra, we’ve seemed to have lost sight of these goals and have fallen into the same funk as that of many other redevelopment agencies in the state.
The majority of the properties on which the ARA acts are not truly blighted. They are not boarded up flop-houses or hangouts for the homeless. In fact, the federal HUD officer assigned to this area does not consider any part of Alhambra to be blighted. So how does the city qualify a site as blighted? The city gains this distinction by hiring a consultant to render an opinion on whether an area is structurally or economically blighted. In March 2010, the city contracted with GRC Associates, a firm who provides such services. The conclusion of their study was that sufficient evidence of blight exists.
While some form of quantitative analysis is involved, there are subjective criteria as well. The obvious question is one of a possible conflict of interest: the city paid a consultant to render an opinion. But the opinion which was favorable to the city was also in the best interest to the consultant’s business base.
But what’s more disturbing is the tone of the debrief given by John Oshino, President of GRC Associates. He cited several threats to the ARA’s ability to direct funding to commercial development: the county and state’s possible challenges to their claims of blight, additional obligations by the state for housing, and a possible increase in the requirement for set-aside funding to affordable housing from 20% to 30%. What is disturbing about Mr. Oshino’s remarks is that he labeled as threats some of the core values of the redevelopment agency’s true charter.
Affordable housing is so much a part of the redevelopment agency charter that the state mandates 20% of tax increment funding be dedicated to it. But the city has failed much of those in need of affordable housing by running the relief program with the precision of an air drop from 50,000 feet. And the parachutes are all landing in Leisure World (see related article in the Alhambra Source).
The possibility of a conflict of interest in hiring a “blight” consultant is no worse than the one we have allowed within our own city. The ARA pays a significant amount of city employee salaries. In fact, the Director of Development Services is paid entirely out of the ARA. Yet it is this same person who oversees the Planning Department – the arm of city government responsible for safeguarding the city’s design and building standards. Residents rely on such standards to maintain their environment and quality of life.
Our parochial mentality has no doubt contributed to Governor Brown’s proposal to remove redevelopment agencies. We use redevelopment funds to subsidize commercial development which, in turn, provides tax increment revenues to further feed the ARA machine. The development projects are not necessarily fixing a blight problem, and revenues should be better managed and used elsewhere (e.g., the crippled Alhambra Adult Education Program).
We need to take a step back and revisit our true goals and vision for the ARA. It’s important for us not to follow the actions of other cities by prematurely committing funds to redevelopment projects now, thereby preventing the state for taking it back if the Governor’s budget proposal is adopted. Doing this is arguably a disaster in the case of Alhambra. It would commit funds to projects that have not yet had adequate public input. And it would likely not be equitable to all stakeholders, namely its residents.
Eric Sunada is a former member of the Alhambra Planning Commission and current director of the San Gabriel Valley Oversight Group, a non-profit organization he started in 2006.