OPINION: Alhambra — A model for redevelopment or abuser of the system?

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.

9 thoughts on “OPINION: Alhambra — A model for redevelopment or abuser of the system?”

  1. living the last 15 years in alhambra … i was forced last november to move to boyle heights … its horrible i pay for an apartment i cant even find parking so i can easily come home.. i just spend hours fighting the dread of no parking if i dont come home by 6pm … danger and most likely not being able to afford the trick of 24hour parking tickets when its fall asleeep waiting for parking or maybe getting a ticket or robbed walking in the dark alone late at night.. blocks away with my mace … i just want come inside without waiting the dread and danger and drama .. i hate boyle heights its my car was hit and vandalized and i contacted hud about the money that is was supposed to fund native american project vouchers($ millions they claim and say that the program wont be helping the homeless anytime soon:) Project based vouchers for retal assistance for american indians in urban areas are supposed to be top priority 2016.. They claimed the money but M : the rejection email was clear .. why was i even trying to believe the website could be legit and actually reach Me ” Mona responded basically good luck and made me just feel completey like a sucker…shes positive they were be no assistance or openings for homeless individuals or projects opening up to help me : ” homeless american indians especially are not going to have any assistance from ALHAMBRA.. i dont have dependents and being homeless or maybe seeking help will be pointless at ” HOUsing dept ALHAMBRA its the biggest building that has no point in recieving funds that are never going to reach the intended….. or exit there huge doors i guess this would be another rejected homeless person not that important … if you wondered what its like try contactin HUD ” the biggest amount of fed eral funds are sourced to people who littery say they could care less if your homeless or homeless enough…who and what is this building for if they dont help people with housing… she says the dont help people and wont be anything available to someone homeless anytime soon.. so who gets the money for american indian project based rental assistance inside the building if NOt a qualified american indian “ME? can they go away .. like the homeless go away… i give up agian for now…

  2. follow the money. said many times, but… How much money goes to current, but especially past, members of the City Council and other City Officials; particularly those involved with Real Estate Development and Business Interests in the city? follow the money; report to the press and the public. sunshine can disinfect politics.

  3. Comments from the community regarding a project that was being ram-rodded by the ENTIRE city council a couple of years ago which would have replaced significant area in an existing park with “senior housing.” However, as a result of an intensive community backlash, the project was defeated (yet did not prevent a current council member for taking credit in “defeating the project” and using it in his re-election campaign):

    “…I’ve lived in Alhambra for over 50 years, the city has a severe shortage of park/open space; Main Street was destroyed when entrenched businesses would not allow competing merchants to come into Alhambra; neighborhoods were destroyed when ”spot-zoning” and mass urbanization spread throughout the city… a multi-unit housing complex developed and owned by [deleted] many years ago was the cause of that area’s rise in crime, blight, and attraction of a ”lower class society” to the city which has resulted in a reduction of property values. Alhambra does NOT need more low income housing…”

    “…an upswelling of opposition to over-development has been building and this was the last straw. These streets were not designed to handle the amount of traffic Alhambra now has…we’d like to hear some sort of [future] organized process on the City’s part for involving residents in these kinds of projects; consult or tap into the talent and ideas of the city’s residents…and not only from developers.”

    “…I don’t believe when you say that this project was only at the discussion stage. 99% of residents (who attended the only public meeting) were against the Main Street Corridor development — and you went ahead with it anyway.”

    “…was shocked when finding out of this development; we are one of the highest density cities in the San Gabriel Valley; I don’t want to see Alhambra known as a city of car dealerships and high-rise apartments.”

    “I am a landscape architect and live in a small apartment. This is the only green-space available within close proximity. We don’t need more condos…we need more parks.”

    “These discussions (about the proposed development) were not presented to citizens in a public forum. They were discussed in city meetings on January 29th, April 30th, and June 4th. I have not seen this type of anger and community activism in my 28 years here. You have stated that alternate sites are being considered. What are these alternate locations?”

    “I am a developer and contractor but do not do business here in Alhambra. This kind of payola and backroom deals only happens in our city. The City of Alhambra throws out the rule book when it comes to deal-making and ethics.” (this prompted a heated exchange between Mayor Yamauchi and the speaker; when speaker tried to rebut an argument by Council-member Barbara Messina in her defense of the City, the speaker was threatened with expulsion and Yamauchi called the Chief of Police from the audience, and with another officer, they attempted to remove the speaker from the room).

    “I’ve lived in Alhambra since 1996 and have seen nothing but condos and apartments going up since that time. My children enjoy this park and am worried about the added traffic and congestion. How far are we going with development in our city? Density is a huge problem.”

    “I share my fellow resident’s concern about this development. We need more parks and open space.”

  4. Eric,
    Thanks for your excellent article. It brings some transparancy to the redevelopment process that many in Alhambra do not understand. Your point that input from the residents is missing is accurate. I remember when the Main Street development was first being planned and a meeting was held at Almansor Court for public input. Hundreds of residents came and voiced their objections to such a massive makeover of Main Street and brought up their concerns about traffic, the high density and high rise look proposed with the multi-storied condos and apartments. This was ignored by our elected officials and it was full speed ahead. It reduced the meeting to a formality and once again the developers interests were placed above the concerns of the residents.
    The developers in many of these projects often get special density bonuses for “senior or affordable housing” with no enforcement on the part of the city that they are owner occupied. In the Zen Terrace project( Commonwealth and Atlantic), units set aside for affordable senior housing were allowed to be purchased by investors and rented out without restrictions. If the city is going to give special density waivers to developers, then they must have a system in place to monitor that the units are owner occupied by those who were orginally intended to occupy the units. Why is this not being done?

  5. The redevelopment process is widely known but not well understood. This story helps make it clearer. Nice job, Eric.

  6. Below is my opinion how Alhambra city is running the redevelopment fund on some project.
    On the corner of Main and Garfield, there stood a ALMOST vacant shopping center (after Mervynn moved out, now left BOA and a couple shops left there). The land lord of that shopping center just let the shopping center vacant with no intend to improve the building or to rent out to some new tenants. Wait until a certain time(I don’t how long to wait) the city declared that’s a “blight” area, so the land lord of that shopping center can qualify to use the redevelopment fund to fund their new project on the shopping center instead of their own money.
    I hope my opinion can reflect the author of the above article’s opinion, Alhambra-Abuser of the system!

    1. David, you’re point is well-taken. There’s a saying that a vacant house decays faster, and perhaps this is the motivation for keeping the shops at Alhambra Place intentionally vacant. The shopping center is far from structurally blighted, and its appearance is actually much more attractive than other areas along Main Street. The city and their consultant admitted that they could not deem the area blighted based on the structure. But they were able to specifically deem that area to be economically blighted, thus qualifying it for continuing redevelopment money. I’ve got a couple of problems with this determination: 1) isn’t it a self-fulfilling verdict driven by their own doing?!; and 2) it results in a subsidy to this specific developer based on a region-wide economic downturn.

  7. Great article with many good points. I hope people will be motivated to take a closer look at how and why this city is in constant renovation mode and to demand more accountability.

  8. And get a load of the article in the latest Around Alhambra “newspaper” titled, “Local Opposition to Governor’s Budget Plan Growing.”

    And I’ll bet that “local opposition” ends at City Hall’s exit door. Of course, every Alhambra resident knows the Around Alhambra is the political propaganda arm of our bought-and-paid-for-by-developers city council.

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