Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Cities around San Diego County face losing their dream projects if the Governor eliminates redevelopment agencies to help balance the state budget. But the city of Encinitas has never had one.
Cities around San Diego County face losing their dream projects if the Governor eliminates redevelopment agencies to help balance the state budget. But the city of Encinitas is one city in the region that has never had a redevelopment agency.
At a recent meeting in Encinitas City Hall, the mood was relaxed and optimistic – even excited. The local business people and some elected officials gathered around the table introduced themselves and then got down to work. They were there to kick off a new business-based group to revitalize the Cardiff neighborhood. The association will become part of a network of “Mainstreet” groups around the state.
Peder Norby headed the Encinitas Mainstreet Association for years. He says city residents decided 25 years ago when they incorporated that they didn’t want a redevelopment agency. They were suspicious of government and wanted a more grassroots approach.
Norby says he has nothing against redevelopment agencies. In fact, he says the transformation of downtown San Diego would not have happened without one.
When I asked him how Encinitas has managed to evolve without one, he responded by saying, “I think the answer to that question is that the downtown Mainstreet Association is close to commerce, it’s close to common sense. Sometimes with large government programs they can get out of control a little bit, this one doesn’t. It relies on the property owners, the business owners and the people who live there.”
Norby describes the Mainstreet approach as organic: it relies on government to upgrade infrastructure like roads, and lets local property and business owners make decisions about how the community grows and develops.
From Norby’s perspective, developers shouldn’t need a public subsidy.
“We live in Southern California,” he said, “We are blessed with some of the greatest climate and geology. So if you can’t make it work where we are, especially North County, there’s no government program that’s going to help you.”
But Encinitas could never have been described as blighted, which is the legal criteria for starting a redevelopment agency.
Up the coast, the City of Oceanside has a different history.
Standing by the city’s scenic fishing pier, with the sound of the waves breaking behind her, Kathy Baker, the redevelopment manager, looks wistfully at the empty lot next to it. The only thing over 10 feet tall are palm trees.
“It did start out very blighted,” Baker said. “We had ice packing plants, we had railroad switching yards, we had oil refineries right here. Since the very beginning of the agency, we always had a vision of building some type of a resort or hotel complex in this general area.”
The empty lot has a magnificent ocean view, up and down the coastline. Three decades and three developers later, the city finally has a plan in the works for a hotel. Baker says the city has won all its permits, and the only thing they’re waiting for is the economy to improve so the developer can get his financing. But now, she says, the governor’s budget plan threatens the whole deal.
“We feel like we’ve really worked hard trying to prepare for this day,” she said, “and then to have this threat looming above us is really disappointing, to say the least.”
Baker says one reason the developer couldn’t go ahead without the support of the redevelopment agency is because the California Coastal Commission requires two levels of underground parking. That’s expensive: each of those parking spaces could cost up to $50,000 dollars to build, she says. To make the project viable for the developer, the city has committed to pay $27 million on the project.
The city is working on ways to keep the hotel/resort afloat, Baker says, but without the public subsidy from a redevelopment agency, the dream may be another mirage.
The City of Escondido in inland North County could also lose a dream if redevelopment money disappears. The city council has approved a new ballpark for the Padres' Triple-A team. They voted last week to send a letter to Sacramento opposing the governor’s plan.
But city councilwoman Olga Diaz, who had reservations about spending $50 million in public money on the project, has a different take. She remembers how the Chargers decided not to build a stadium in Escondido.
“If in fact there were no redevelopment agencies,” Diaz said, “and the Chargers had to build their own stadium on their dime, they would be looking for a cost-effective way to do that, including more affordable land. In which case, Escondido would have been more attractive than San Diego.”
Diaz thinks there are opportunities for smaller cities to compete for bigger, better projects if large cities can’t buy the projects with their redevelopment dollars.
Back at the conference table in Encinitas, Peder Norby says without redevelopment money, cities will still be able to grow, they’ll just have to do it in tune with market forces.
“With alternative strategies like redevelopment,” Norby says, “you can skew the matrix so it works for the developer or the city, but the market still doesn’t support it. In order for it to work in Encinitas it has to be market based. That’s the important criteria: does the market support this? If it does, it will come.”
It remains to be seen what happens to redevelopment agencies in the state budget, but if they are cut, that won’t mean the end of redevelopment in San Diego.