Blight Fright : Skeptical Redondo Residents Hope to Quash Redevelopment Plan

Times Staff Writer

When Redondo Beach's deteriorated downtown gave way to the wrecking ball of redevelopment two decades ago, the city forced hundreds of people from their homes and businesses.

Many of them, as well as other longtime residents, still tell horror stories from that time, and many criticize the sprawling condominium and apartment complexes that replaced the city's downtown.

D & D Drug Co. was one of the businesses, forced out in 1969 from a location it had occupied since 1910. The family-owned drugstore was relocated--with the city's help--to the nearby Redondo Triangle Shopping Center.

Sixteen years later, the city declared the shopping center a redevelopment area, applied eminent domain and again forced D & D Drug to make way for a recently opened Sheraton hotel.

So when the city put the King Harbor Plaza Shopping Center--where the drugstore is now--into a new redevelopment "study area" recently, D & D's owners, and many others, got nervous.

Outcry Continues

Since then, the city has tentatively removed the shopping center, as well as all residential properties, from the study area, responding to property owner complaints and residents' fears of losing their homes.

But the outcry over redevelopment continues.

"Why do we have the leave-me-alone view? Because we have seen it all before," Rene Burke told the Redevelopment Agency at a recent meeting when he asked that his Pacific Coast Highway property be removed from the study area. Many Redondo residents, he said, "still retain the terrible memories of those days when men and women lost their hopes, their health, and some even lost their minds."

Sue Haller, director of the city's Housing, Economic Development and Transit Department, told the agency at a recent meeting: "We never imagined that the concern would be so great, because we never intended to play anything but a constructive role."

In addition to tentatively reducing the size of the study area, the agency promised not to use its eminent domain powers on any commercial properties that also are used as residences.

The promised changes, however, won't be effected until the Redevelopment Agency passes a resolution, which it is expected to do Tuesday night.

What will be left is a redevelopment study area that weaves through most areas of the city and includes the state beach, City Hall complex and most of the Redondo Union High School campus.

Civic Center Planned

City officials plan to build a civic center complex at the City Hall site someday and said that a redevelopment project may provide money to fix up restrooms on the beach and landscape the bordering hillside.

Once the resolution is passed, the agency cannot change any of the provisions or restrictions, except to further limit the size of the study or their eminent domain powers. The only way to expand the project would be to declare a new study area and begin the lengthy redevelopment process again.

Some residents continue to criticize the designation of a study area--which could lead to adoption of a formal redevelopment plan about a year later--and the officials who support it.

Mayor Barbara J. Doerr and the City Council supported the study area when it was approved in April. This month, Doerr has been speaking against redevelopment and said the city should drop the idea for now.

She said that just putting a building in a redevelopment study area taints the property. Doerr said a woman told her after the study area was approved that she had bought a "$500,000 piece of blighted property."

Critics have been protesting the city's plans at every City Council and Redevelopment Agency meeting, saying that Redondo Beach is not blighted and redevelopment is unnecessary. Critics say that business owners have been improving their buildings at their own pace and do not need government assistance or interference.

Officials reply that blight can be measured not only by visual decay, but by economic and social conditions as well. They say that crime in the area, for example, could be reduced by improving its appearance.

Most city officials defend redevelopment as a useful tool to pay for improvement of deteriorating commercial corridors and residences--if any are left in the redevelopment project--and nearby low- and moderate-income housing, even if it is not in the study area.

Many Types of Financing

The city could help property and business owners rehabilitate their buildings and landscaping through grants, rebates, low-interest loans or other financing mechanisms. A redevelopment project also would allow the Redevelopment Agency to borrow money to make public improvements in the area.

Redevelopment projects provide money for such improvements by allowing the agency to keep most of the money generated by higher property values--money that normally would go to the county. Twenty percent of that money must be set aside for low- and moderate-income housing, though not necessarily within the project's boundaries, and the rest must be used to pay off any debt the Redevelopment Agency incurs.

"The city couldn't afford these things without redevelopment," Haller said.

"This is really the start of a project that may provide assistance for many years to come," City Manager Tim Casey told the agency at a recent meeting. Casey serves as the executive director of the agency.

In an interview, he said that the whole idea might be dropped because of incorrect information that some redevelopment opponents have been circulating. The next 30 to 40 days will likely indicate whether the redevelopment process continues or is abandoned, he said.

"Right now, there's so much community confusion that is the result of misinformation and outright lies by the opponents of the project. . . . I feel so strongly about it and it hurts me when I see people take a project that was well conceived and long overdue, and twist it and distort it into something it isn't," he said.

Opponents, he said, are falsely portraying the proposal as the kind of wholesale demolition project that occurred in the 1960s.

If the city does adopt a redevelopment plan, it will be able to devote more financial resources to North Redondo, an area often viewed as taking a back seat to the southern half of the city, Casey said.

Alluding to what a redevelopment project could do, Casey said, "Why does Artesia (Boulevard) have fading, pink concrete medians when the rest of the city has plush, landscaped medians? It's not fair."

Prettier buildings may attract more customers, which could provide increased sales tax to the city, he said. "Maybe we'll still have Hubcaps R Us on Artesia, but maybe they'll be operating out of a prettier building," he said.

Community Development Block Grant funds previously provided some aid to businesses to rehabilitate their properties, Casey said, but in recent years Redondo Beach and other cities have received steadily decreasing block grant funds. Redondo has only $60,000 in such money available for projects in the current fiscal year, he said.

The city administers other federal programs that offer financial assistance to home and business owners, but few people have taken advantage of them because of burdensome requirements, Casey said. Under redevelopment, city money is allocated and the requirements for receiving the aid are less restrictive, he said.

Galleria Cited

Casey and other city officials point to the Galleria at South Bay--at the site of the former South Bay Center--and the Redondo Beach Business Court--formally Aviation High School--as recent examples of successful redevelopment projects in Redondo Beach.

The Galleria was the result of an unusual redevelopment agreement among Redondo Beach, Lawndale and the property owner, Forest City Enterprises of Cleveland.

Forest City wanted to renovate the old shopping center but needed about $12 million. Lawndale was eligible for federal Urban Development Action Grant money, but Redondo Beach was not and could not provide that kind of financing without the redevelopment tool, Casey said.

In return for using $8 million in grant money for the Galleria, Lawndale gets a share of profits from the mall's operation and some of the proceeds from any future property sale. In addition, the grant money is being reimbursed with interest and residents get preference for Galleria jobs, Casey said.

Redondo Beach gave $4.5 million for an adjacent public parking structure, he said. The Galleria generates $1.2 million a year in property taxes, up from $350,000 before redevelopment, and $1.5 million in sales tax, up from $500,000, Casey said.

Casey and other officials are also proud of the Sheraton hotel on Harbor Drive, although the redevelopment process has proven costly to the city. That redevelopment plan was approved in 1981 and the Redevelopment Agency got involved to condemn and assemble the property, which was then owned by 13 businesses, Casey said.

The company purchased one of the parcels and the Redevelopment Agency imposed eminent domain to get the other 12, for which it paid $5.4 million.

A Los Angeles Superior Court jury, however, later ruled that the properties were worth nearly twice that and ordered the city to pay 10 of the owners an additional $4.2 million. Under an agreement between the Redevelopment Agency and the developer, the agency will pay all the money but will eventually--in more than 30 years--be reimbursed by the development company for 80% of the judgment, or about $3.4 million.

In retrospect, Casey said, the agreement was not a good one for the city and amounts to an interest-free loan to the developers. The city has asked for a new trial, but no ruling has been made.

"The hotel has been built and I think, to many, it represents a welcome change to what preceded it, but to others, it will always be an example of condemnation and redevelopment," Casey said.

But the project that most redevelopment opponents point to is the 1960s revitalization of what was once Redondo's downtown and is now a massive, upscale condominium complex that covers several blocks and has given the city a nickname: Recondo Beach.

"I guess that truly was a project that left a lot of bitterness within the community," Casey acknowledged.

In recent months, while city officials have been discussing the current redevelopment study area, they have been continually reminded of the hardships that people endured during the 1960s when the city forced them out of their homes and businesses.

But redevelopment these days is significantly different from the "devastating demolition projects" of the 1950s and '60s, Casey said, because laws now require more public comment at nearly every stage of the process.

When a large number of residential properties are in a redevelopment study area, a project area committee must be formed which is representative of the residential and business communities and any other groups affected.

A 27-member committee was elected by people in the new study area, but that group probably will be dissolved once the residential areas are officially removed, said Barry Kielsmeier, economic development administrator.

Citizen participation will still be emphasized, he said, but he does not know how that will be accomplished.

Kielsmeier said he takes most of the calls from residents and business owners who "want to know, 'What does this mean for me?' " He has a sign on his office door that enumerates the "six phases of a project": enthusiasm, disillusionment, panic, search for the guilty, punishment of the innocent and praise and honor for the nonparticipants.

Redondo seems to be somewhere between the panic and search-for-the-guilty stages.

Activist Tom O'Leary warned council members at a recent meeting: "You should, in your own interests--in your own political interests--know the degree of resentment that exists against this program.

"Fear is a powerful emotion . . . and that is what you are going to be fighting if you keep this up."

Emotions and tensions are strong at the crowded meetings when redevelopment is discussed. Opponents in the audience frequently applaud other redevelopment foes and yell out sarcastic comments to officials or the few vocal supporters of the proposal.

Mark Hocking, who plans to open a card shop and art gallery on Artesia Boulevard this fall and is a member of the project area committee, was one of the few people who publicly told the mayor and City Council that he wants to see some of the city's commercial areas put into a redevelopment project.

He said that a project would enable businesses to upgrade to the level of surrounding residential areas. He suggested that commercial corridors take on a theme, such as a Swiss chalet style of architecture.

Resident John Sabel disagreed. "We don't want our things changed," he told council members. "I like the city the way it is. I don't think that anything you've done to improve our city has made it a more beautiful place. I don't think the Sheraton's really needed. . . .

"I like Redondo how it is. All the old shops down in the area that you say is blighted--some of the best deals are found there. And when the neighborhood improves--and it is improving because of land values . . . the land owners and the shop owners will pay for their own paint and their own faces of their shops to be changed, because they'll want to get the clientele to shop there.

"I don't think we need to do this for them," he said.

Councilman John Chapman said the council must put the public's comments--and threats--into perspective because, in most cases, only people vehemently opposed to whatever is at issue speak at public hearings.

The council must gauge those comments with the views of city staff, the less vocal supporters and the unspoken opinions of the rest of the community. "The thousands that don't come to the hearings are also the people that put us in office," he said. "If we voted on emotion, we'd be doing a disservice to the general population of the city."

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