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.”
Though not opposed to redevelopment per se, councilmembers Steve Castaneda and Rudy Ramirez had reservations about the plan and the agency’s past performance. Concerned about how neighborhoods have not gotten what they deserved in the past, Castaneda said, “We’re not telling them what we’re doing for them; we’re telling them what we want from them.”
Ramirez added to this by saying that the five-year plan “fell short” in giving clear direction. He pointed out that although “people” interpret the document to mean a communitywide dialogue will be initiated, “the words of the document actually say something else.” Ramirez said he found it suspicious that in recent meetings he’d attended “decision-makers” had already made up their minds “that this [expanding the project areas] was a good thing.” He characterized redevelopment in Chula Vista as being in an “infant state” and felt that public skepticism would not be so strong if the “redevelopment effort had seen some demonstrated results.”
In the end, only part of the five-year redevelopment plan was passed. The first vote, part A, pertained to projects in Town Centre I, which includes Chula Vista’s bayfront. The vote was 3–1 with Ramirez opposing it and Castaneda recusing himself due to a conflict of interest. In the second vote, part B, which pertained to Town Centre II and southwest Chula Vista, Thompson and Ramirez recused themselves due to conflicts of interest. Castaneda had indicated he would not support the five-year plan as written, so Cox proposed for the time being to delete residential-redevelopment expansion from part B and it was approved.
In an interview a few days later, David Danciu, of Crossroads II, explained why he had attended the meeting. Danciu had been part of the Redevelopment Agency’s advisory group, which was charged with generating the plan, but he said the expansion had come as a surprise to him.
“All of a sudden, we went to our very last meeting, and there it was — the redevelopment staff brought a document that said that one of the Redevelopment Agency’s top three objectives was to expand redevelopment into residential areas,” Danciu recalls. “It wasn’t even specific to what areas.”
Danciu said he asked the staff, “Well, what’s this all about?” Staff answered him that there were other stakeholders.
“Apparently it came from the city council,” said Danciu. “It was really a shock to me to see that pop up out of nowhere, and that led to us protesting it at the city council meeting.”
Theresa Acerro said she’d spoken out at the meeting against the plan because “the Redevelopment Agency is essentially dysfunctional. Why would you want to expand something that is that dysfunctional?”
She pointed out contradictions in the mayor’s and council’s statements about community input. “On the one hand, they’re saying at the beginning of the meeting that they’re going to hire another consultant to do another community outreach, but then you have the councilmembers — or at least Mayor Cox and Councilmember Bensoussan — insulting people who are participating and commenting. Bensoussan actually quoted from letters people had written to her and said that these people were uninformed and they didn’t know what they were talking about. Even if you don’t agree with people, you say, ‘Well, thank you for giving us your input.’ You don’t attack a community activist by name like she did. That is just not acceptable. What does that say to Joe Schmoe out there who
doesn’t dare go over to city hall because he’s scared. That’s not the way to get people involved.”
Acerro recently obtained documents through a public records request that shed light on her skepticism about the Redevelopment Agency’s transactions in the southwest part of Chula Vista. Between 1990 and 2006, the agency received $15,047,299 in tax increment money from properties in the southwest area. From this sum, money was paid out to the schools, the county, and the low-income housing set-aside, and a hefty debt service was paid. Agency staff was paid $5,728,194, according to the document. After that, there was little left to spend on the area in which the money originated. The only expenditures that directly affect the southwest community were the widening of Palomar Street, which cost $248,691, and the widening of Main Street, which cost $500,000. Both are commercial streets. Of the $15 million raised in the southwest area in this period, only $748,691 was spent there.
Chula Vista’s Redevelopment Agency generally does not get high marks. A recent Union-Tribune editorial titled “A Risky Road to Redevelopment” says of the agency, “Despite two decades of commercial redevelopment experience, the record is one of abject failure.”
Danciu’s feelings parallel this comment. “Oh, I think it’s been a disaster. I don’t see any redevelopment that I would even point to and say, ‘Wow, this is really something neat about Chula Vista.’” Danciu said the agency’s only achievements in western Chula Vista are three housing developments — Seniors on Broadway, Los Vecinos, and Spotlight on Broadway — “but for the millions of dollars they’ve spent on those things, they’re nothing. They only house 40 people each.”
During one of the advisory meetings, Danciu says he asked Eric Crockett, head of the Redevelopment Agency, “What are you working on now?” Crockett had no answer. “What they’re doing is taking redevelopment money and spreading it around to a lot of consultants,” said Danciu. “It just gets burned up in these working groups, in staff time and consultants.”