FEB. 2, 2011
By STEVEN GREENHUT
If California Redevelopment Association President Linda Bartons presentation Tuesday at a Sacramento Press Club debate was any indication, then Gov. Jerry Brown might have an easier time than expected in getting rid of the states noxious redevelopment agencies. Barton was so out of her league it was almost embarrassing as she debated longtime redevelopment foe, Chris Norby, now an Assemblyman representing north Orange County.
Barton came across as the caricature of a small-town city bureaucrat lacking personality, humorless, self important. Those qualities are useful, I suppose, as one abuses eminent domain and cuts unconscionable deals with developers and gives short shrift to the concerns of members of the community.
She had no data whatsoever. She made absurd claims (i.e., redevelopment only helps developers clean up polluted sites). She told outrageous whoppers that CRA, which has fought every serious reform to eminent domain and redevelopment abuse, was a reform-minded institution open to ideas for improving its development policies.
She gave silly stories about a man named Nathan who now has a happy life living in subsidized housing in downtown Livermore (how exciting!) and riding his bicycle to work thanks to redevelopment. Oh yes, the joys of big government central planning. Is this for real? She blathered about hundreds of thousands of jobs supposedly created by redevelopment another dishonest statistic but could provide nothing other than stories when I asked about specifics on those jobs. Are they minimum wage jobs at Quiznos and Starbucks, for instance? Someone give this woman a class in economics.
And Barton as she meandered on in her school-marm manner offered an incredibly weak argument. She said that redevelopment is the only job-creation tool local governments have. Really? Apparently, the private sector doesnt create jobs. Only bureaucrats in city offices create jobs by running up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, showering corporate welfare on politically well-connected developers and driving small businesses and ethnic minorities off of their property through eminent domain so that wealthy folks can get hold of their land on the cheap.
Norby tore her arguments apart, noting that Barton kept going on about shops and restaurants. Those arent public goods, Norby said. Redevelopment takes money from schools and public safety and gives it to restauranteurs, big-box stores and auto malls. Norby mocked Bartons claim that redevelopment is complex. Typical of Barton, she said she wouldnt go into the details of tax increment and redevelopment project areas because its such a complex subject the assembled reporters apparently wouldnt get it.
But Norby said its a very simple concept and officials such as Barton want it to seem complex so the rest of us dont ask too many questions. Redevelopment, he said, takes public dollars and subsidizes developers in the hope that it creates growth. It enriches consultants and lobbyists in the process and creates lucrative careers for bureaucrats who pick winners and losers in the economy. Its quite simple, really.
When asked tough questions about redevelopment, Barton kept going back to her experience as the Livermore city manager, explaining that all she knows is what she saw in Livermore. But she is president of the association that represents the states 425 redevelopment agencies. She needs to do better than tell silly stories from her little, wealthy suburban enclave.
Norby countered by telling the stories of regular people whose lives have been destroyed by redevelopment agencies wielding the tool of eminent domain.
Gov. Brown is right to shut down these agencies for fiscal and policy reasons. That CRA can come up with no one more articulate than Barton as it has its back against the wall is probably good news for the rest of us. But it would be wrong to underestimate the political power of these agencies and the cities that have come to depend upon them. Still, its clear that in the battle of ideas, redevelopment agencies are out of ammunition. All thats left are bland generalities and pabulum of the sort offered up by the CRAs deer in the headlights president.