Depending on who is talking, the proposed expansion of the city's redevelopment district along Firestone Boulevard is the path to economic vitality or a road over which bulldozers may someday pass.
"We need to build on our commercial base," said Jim Cutts, Downey director of community development. "If we maintain some kind of a status quo in this city then we'll fall behind" other area cities that are attracting new business and industry.
"How are you going to react when they knock on your door and the guy knocking is driving a bulldozer," said Michael E. Sullivan, president of Downey CARES, a group of business and property owners along Firestone. "It should not be necessary for the city to have the power to condemn private property and then give it or sell it to a developer to make money on."
Hearing Scheduled Tuesday
The City Council will hear those arguments and others Tuesday during a public hearing to decide whether to add 305 acres to a 125-acre redevelopment zone in the heart of Downey's commercial district. The hearing will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall.
Approval of the expanded redevelopment zone is expected to be anything but easy. Lined up against it are a citizens advisory group on redevelopment called the Project Area Committee, Los Angeles County and Downey CARES.
As proposed by the city's Redevelopment Agency, the addition would include 305 acres both north and south of Firestone Boulevard, from Old River School Road on the west to the city boundary on the east. Land use in the area is mixed with commercial and industrial uses accounting for 34% of the area. There are 168 single-family homes and multifamily structures in the original redevelopment area and the proposed addition.
When a redevelopment district is created, property taxes used to support traditional government services are frozen. Additional tax revenue from the higher value of redeveloped properties is diverted to the redevelopment agency. The agency uses that money to promote redevelopment by financing public improvements, providing developers with discounts on land prices and other incentives.
As proposed, the 30-year plan would give the Redevelopment Agency condemnation powers for 12 years. Owner-occupied residential property would be exempt, but once the original owner leaves the property, it also would be subject to condemnation.
Despite those restrictions, it is the power of eminent domain that most worries opponents of the plan.
The advisory committee, which is composed of local homeowners and businessmen, voted last month to recommend that the City Council strip the agency of its power of eminent domain in the original district and the proposed addition if it were approved. Then it voted to reject the expansion altogether.
Two-Thirds Vote Required
A two-thirds City Council vote is required to approve the plan against the advisory group's recommendation. With Mayor James S. Santangelo abstaining because of a conflict of interest, that would be three of the four voting council members.
Sandra Haney, an advisory group member who owns a home in the area, opposes the plan primarily because it would give the city the power to seize property of businesses and new homeowners in the zone.
"If I put my home up for sale I have to notify them (potential buyers) they could lose their house the next day," she said. "That damages the value of my property, and that person isn't protected from eminent domain and it's not fair for them."
Haney said she initially opposed the plan because of the effect it would have on homeowners, but later decided it was bad for a businessman, too, because "his investment in his business is just as important as my home is to me."
The Redevelopment Agency counters that it has never seized residential property to make way for a redevelopment project. Since the original district was formed in 1978, the Redevelopment Agency has used the power of eminent domain to acquire four small businesses along Downey Avenue and Firestone Boulevard for redevelopment projects, Cutts said.
Cutts said the City Council, which doubles as the Community Development Commission and decides redevelopment questions, is "very sensitive" about using the power of eminent domain.
But he said it is a vital ingredient to fulfill plans to redevelop the Firestone corridor, which contains small lots that may need to be unified to be made attractive for larger commercial developments. The Redevelopment Agency will encourage participation by current business operators, and relocation assistance would be available for those who may be moved, Cutts said.
"If you have a case where you're going in and purchasing a number of properties and you have someone sitting in the middle who doesn't want to sell, then we'd consider using eminent domain," Cutts said.
Downey CARES and some members of the advisory committee also think the Redevelopment Agency erred when it found the expansion area "blighted," a determination required by state law before a redevelopment district can be formed.
Mixed Land Uses
The agency found dilapidated buildings, mixed land uses such as residential property adjacent to commercial property, and depreciated property values in the area. It also found some lots that were irregularly shaped and unsuited for effective development, and inadequate public improvements, including a water system that carries insufficient amounts of water to some areas to fight fires.
The Redevelopment Agency contends that the private sector alone is unable to remedy the blight, and government intervention is needed, a view supported by George Holiday, a local businessman and chairman of the advisory committee.
"Certainly there are problems," Holiday said. "You only have to drive through the area . . . and you see inconsistent uses that, if they remain indefinitely, are only going to cause deterioration and physical blight."
Cutts said many Downey residents travel outside the city to spend their shopping dollars, a loss of tax revenue for the city. He said the Redevelopment Agency hopes to attract new stores, restaurants and other businesses to serve local residents.
Private Enterprises Active
Downey CARES maintains that the area is a vital business zone that continues to grow through the efforts of private enterprises.
A large paint store and two retail shopping plazas are some of the developments that have been recently completed or are nearing completion nearby. They are in areas the Redevelopment Agency once wanted to include in the city's redevelopment zone.
"The boulevard is developing on its own," said Sullivan, the president of Downey CARES.
Los Angeles County, which could lose revenue if the district is enlarged, also has told the city that the area is too large and not as blighted as the Redevelopment Agency contends. The county has pointed out that property values in the area have increased an average of 11.5% annually for the past five years, while the rates for the entire city and Los Angeles County were 8.1% and 9.2% respectively.
Cutts acknowledged that development is occurring in the area without government intervention, but he said the developers of two of the three projects requested redevelopment assistance and one had to scale down his project because no help was available.
Hotel Cited as Example
He also pointed to the jewel of the city's redevelopment efforts--the successful Embassy Suites Hotel--as an example of what redevelopment can do for the city. The agency also says property values in the original redevelopment area have increased an average of 21% annually.
But Sullivan said yielding property rights to the Redevelopment Agency carries too many uncertainties.
"That's too much to trust anybody with. You're almost putting your deed on deposit with City Hall and that's too much," he said. "It's going to last for 30 years so you have to trust the next 15 city councils."
The proposed expansion, known as Amendment 4, is the Redevelopment Agency's substitute for a previous plan to enlarge the existing district. The City Council added 380 acres to the district in 1984, but a Superior Court judge invalidated the action after finding that Mayor Santangelo had a conflict of interest when he cast the deciding vote.
The city has appealed the decision. Santangelo has abstained from voting on Amendment 4.
Woodruff Project Postponed
In a related action, the City Council last week postponed for a second time a hearing on a plan to form a separate, 118-acre redevelopment zone on the eastern edge of the city. The proposed redevelopment zone, called the Woodruff Industrial Project, would include an industrial area straddling Woodruff Avenue south of Firestone Boulevard.
The plan has run into strong opposition from two groups of business and property owners in the area.
Mayor Pro Tem Diane P. Boggs said the City Council needed more time to study the more than 1,200 pages of documents submitted by opponents of the plan. The hearing will resume July 8.