Yesterday, the lights went out for redevelopment agencies all over the state.
Governor Jerry Brown thinks the move could save the state $1.7 billion a year, but those savings come at the cost of improving blighted areas. And for cities with big redevelopment departments, like Oakland, it’s also costing jobs. The city used up to $30 million a year in redevelopment funds – but no more. And Tuesday night, the city council accepted a new budget that eliminated 80 city positions. Those cuts could be felt throughout Oakland soon.
“The City of Oakland’s government is not bloated. It’s been cut back drastically over the past several years through numerous rounds of budget cuts. At this point you’re just depriving citizens of services,” says Robert Gammon, co-editor of the East Bay Express and former reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Gammon has been covering redevelopment and politics in Oakland for years, and KALW’s Ben Trefny spoke with him last week about the dissolution of redevelopment agencies.
After that story aired, we received a call from a listener complaining that Trefny's conversation with Gammon didn’t go in depth enough. Robert Brokl of Oakland thought the coverage was "one-sided," potentially leading other listeners to believe that cuts would only affect affordable housing. "In truth, what Oakland used a lot of redevelopment money for was to pay part of the salaries of the mayor and the council, lots of schemes like downtown stadiums proposed, retail shopping districts, etc., and staff," Brokl says.
Brokl joins a chorus of redevelopment critics who’ve noted the agencies are in $30 billion of bonded debt. In Oakland, some critics say funds were only tenuously tied to redevelopment projects – in all the pool of money paid for 159 full-time employees, including 17 police officers. It also reportedly covered half of Mayor Jean Quan’s salary, which will have to come from elsewhere in the budget, now. Redevelopment money also paid for commercial development, it helped launch the city’s Art & Soul festival, it paid for a graffiti abatement program, and it was used to create communities centered around commerce and transit.
“There's a growing consensus in the environmental movement that the most effective, or one of the most effective ways, of battling climate change is to spur more urban growth and to curtail suburban sprawl,” says Gammon of the East Bay Express. Gammon points out that the way to change behavior is to spur more urban growth, also called smart growth or transit-oriented growth. "Redevelopment has played a key role in that," he says. "And so right now in cities like Oakland, Los Angeles, San Jose, Sacramento – other cities that are looking at smart growth plans, the question is how they're going to be able to do it without redevelopment. There is no other funding mechanism to spur urban growth. Are we going to be able to meet as a state our climate change goals, which are pretty ambitious over the next 30 years?"
Other Bay Area cities will see blighted areas stagnate as well. Earlier this week, on KALW’s “Your Call,” Carlos Martinez, who’s been serving East Palo Alto as its economic and redevelopment director, talked about a project that has been jeopardized by the loss of funding: “We were working for the last two years or so in creating the specific plan for the Ravenshood, which is a transit-oriented development. This specific plan embraces the desires of the community to create a city center for East Palo Alto that is pedestrian-oriented, that is a place where you can work, live, play, and includes many acres of open space. And all that vision, all those expectations are ending now.”
The Palo Alto city council will be discussing a transition plan at its meeting Tuesday.
Redevelopment is one story we’re following closely. What do you want to hear more about? Call us at 415-264-7106 and let us know, or visit us on our Facebook page.