Communication at a Chula Vista city council meeting hit an all-time low on December 15. The council was besieged when one resident threw plastic eggs at the dais, claiming that councilmembers had “no backbone, no huevos, no balls.” The resident yelled to “get redevelopment out of the way and let the free market take its place.” On the other side of the dais, people also felt besieged. Residents who came to speak were angered when they felt their public testimony was belittled or negated by Mayor Cheryl Cox and Councilmember Pamela Bensoussan. The issue that produced this acrimonious exchange was a proposed five-year redevelopment plan.
Of most concern to residents who turned out for the meeting was the possibility that their neighborhood would be included in a redevelopment area and declared blighted. People feared that a home in a blighted area would have less resale value, that residents would have less control over their neighborhood, and that their homes might even be threatened by eminent domain.
At the beginning of the discussion, Redevelopment Agency staff presented to the council a 40-page document that stated as its number-one objective “Expansion of Redevelopment Project Areas.” Most of the debate at the council meeting centered around whether the intent of the document was to begin the process of identifying blighted areas and expanding the project areas or whether the intent was simply to begin a community dialogue about expanding the areas. A second issue was money. By expanding the project areas, the agency’s revenue would also be expanded. Some residents and councilmembers questioned whether the agency had shown sufficient achievement in the past to justify the expanded territory and increased revenue.
The Redevelopment Agency relies on bond sales and tax increment money for funding. A tax increment accrues after property is included in a project area. If a property increases in value, the assessed tax increase goes to the agency. Taxes going to the city’s general fund remain the same. As property values are very low now, but anticipated to rise, the Redevelopment Agency would be in a good position to capture that rise.
The issue of eminent domain seemed uppermost on the audience’s mind. Councilmember Bensoussan asked agency staff whether Chula Vista’s Proposition C and the state’s Prop 99, approved by voters in the past few years to defend citizens from eminent domain seizure, afforded residents of Chula Vista protection from losing their homes if they were placed within a project area. City Attorney Bart Miesfeld said he had studied the point and he didn’t believe that even “coming through the back door,” through the Redevelopment Agency, that owner-occupied houses could be seized and sold to private developers. A moment later, however, he said that the city would be able to use eminent domain for public use.
During the public comment period, David Danciu, of the community organization Crossroads II, told the council that to expand the project areas “would start the process where the label of blight would be assigned to residential neighborhoods.” He asked the council to consider, “If you lived in those neighborhoods, would you want your houses, your neighbors’ houses, to be labeled blighted? I wouldn’t.”
Theresa Acerro, president of the Southwest Chula Vista Civic Association, told the council, “We have these large residential areas in the southwest that have been in redevelopment since 1991, and the Redevelopment Agency has not spent one penny of tax increment money in those neighborhoods, even though they’ve raised a whole lot of tax increment money because of large condo-development homes that have been upgraded. So why in the world should we believe they’re going to do something good for the neighborhood if they expand into other neighborhoods?”
Acerro also had harsh words for the Redevelopment Agency. She said the agency, whose members are identical to the city council, has a terrible record of losing money and making poor investments. By way of example, she cited the Gateway project, a two-building commercial and office complex on Third Avenue and H Street. When the project started in 2000, the city hoped the new buildings would revitalize Third Avenue, but that hasn’t happened yet. According to a June 2009 staff report, in both buildings “many tenants have relocated or been unable to maintain their leases resulting in a vacancy of approximately 30 percent.” Acerro complained that to get the project going, the agency “used eminent domain to put businesses out of business, sold the land to the developer for less than what they paid, then they gave the developer millions of dollars.…” Acerro went on to say that the developer — Jim Pieri, of MountainWest Real Estate — is now trying to sell or lease the Gateway buildings because the vacancy rate is so high, yet the agency would like to give him more money for a third building.
During council comments, Bensoussan held up a stack of letters from constituents and claimed that “these people” were misinformed and manipulated by a fearmongering campaign. She read excerpts from letters written by people who feared losing their homes to a “land grab.” Then she named Earl Jentz, a Chula Vista realtor and community activist, as the one who had stirred up residents’ fears.
When Mayor Cox’s turn came, she responded to Acerro’s comments about the Gateway project by defending the developer. “It’s hurtful and just pathetic to criticize a company that had a lot of leasors in the mortgage business, so the mortgage bankers don’t have mortgages to write and they tend to move out of the property, and that puts any business owner in a predicament,” she said.
Responding to Acerro’s comment that the agency had not spent one penny on residential neighborhoods in the southwest redevelopment area, Cox enumerated nonresidential projects the city or the agency had done there. These included Palomar shopping center, Palomar roadway improvements, and Harborside Park.
Mayor Cox and councilmembers Bensoussan and Mitch Thompson supported the redevelopment plan as written. Bensoussan said a vote for the plan would simply “open a dialogue” with the community on expanding project areas. She said the ultimate intent was getting the money to neighborhoods to “rehab” them. She assured residents that any added project areas would not have neon signs that said “Blight,” and she noted that “the whole city of Coronado is in redevelopment.”