Tuesday, February 7, 2012

California dissolves its redevelopment agencies. The right choice?

I was among over 1,400 planners, developers and elected officials who gathered in San Diego for the 11th annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference this week. 

The conference coincided with the enactment of a California law to dissolve all local and county redevelopment agencies. Redevelopment Agencies have spent years revitalizing California’s downtowns and communities by funding projects that include pedestrian and bike facilities, transportation infrastructure and, most importantly, affordable housing developments. As a result of the law, plans for transforming some of the state’s most blighted areas are effectively on hold.

During the conference I had an opportunity to tour the North Park district in San Diego. North Park is a perfect example of a formally “less desirable” neighborhood that now attracts artists and young professionals who invest both economic and “cool” capital to make the community a popular place to live.

Like most inner ring suburbs, North Park began as farmland until developers cleared the land and constructed homes to support San Diego's burgeoning population in the early 1900's. The neighborhood quickly became the city's premier residential area due to its location on the streetcar line and thriving retail centers in the 1920's. However, soon after the streetcar stopped rolling through the community and the popularity of suburban retail locations in the 1960's and 70's began to increase, North Park began to experience a period of disinvestment from both the public and private sector leading low property values and negative perceptions of the community from San Diego residents.

In the 1990's the neighborhood witnessed a revival of its commercial corridor and a new appreciation for its historic and diverse housing stock. Today, North Park continues to gain attention, and there are talks building a new streetcar line to re-establish the neighborhood as a mixed-use and pedestrian friendly community.

I wonder if North Park and other revitalized neighborhoods in California would have been successful without the aid of the state’s redevelopment agencies. The value and efficacy of these agencies have long been debated, but it's clear that California must continue to make strategic investments in its most needy communities. 

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