A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that she was powerless to undo a spending cap that puts a chokehold on plans to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into revitalizing Los Angeles' Downtown business core.
The ruling, by Superior Court Judge Florence Pickard, was a victory for 83-year-old Ernani Bernardi, the curmudgeonly former Van Nuys councilman who has made it his personal crusade-- both during his years at City Hall and now in retirement--to limit the activities of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.
By her ruling, Pickard let stand a 1977 agreement reached between Bernardi and the city limiting the CRA to spending $750 million to improve the so-called Central Business District redevelopment project.
Having nearly spent the $750 million, the agency is seeking to raise the 1977 spending cap to $7.1 billion, as it contends its Downtown urban renewal job is far from complete. "There are a whole host of things that need to be done," said Don Spivack, CRA director of operations.
Mayor Richard Riordan's office did not comment on Pickard's ruling.
Meanwhile, Bernardi said he was pleased with the judge's decision. "It's not for me but for the 3.5 million other people in the city that I'm happy," said Bernardi, who retired from the Los Angeles City Council in 1993.
Bernardi has argued for years that the CRA is an arrogant and unaccountable agency that steals tax dollars needed for more pressing municipal services--such as police and fire protection--in order to help questionable projects that benefit real estate developers.
CRA officials, however, decried Tuesday's ruling, saying it unfairly gives one man, Bernardi, veto power over civic projects approved by locally elected lawmakers and intended to eradicate blight and provide new housing and job opportunities in the city's Downtown core.
"The question now is: Should one man . . . be able to frustrate the will of the elected representatives of 3 1/2 million people," said Assistant City Atty. Dov Lesel, who has represented the CRA in the Bernardi litigation.
Although the city in 1977 agreed to the cap, it has now changed its mind about its value, as it is entitled to do, Lesel said.
Barbara Blinderman, Bernardi's attorney, denied accusations that Bernardi is engaged in a selfish, one-man crusade. Her client's original lawsuit, which was brought in the 1970s and resulted in the 1977 stipulated agreement, was actually filed in behalf of all city taxpayers to protect their interests, she noted.
The CRA has "had 17 years to do all these wonderful things they said they were going to do," Bernardi said.
During his three decades as a councilman, Bernardi made a name for himself criticizing city waste and urging belt-tightening measures.
The Pickard decision puts a host of ambitious, long-range CRA projects in abeyance, although the CRA's 1995-96 budget did not anticipate the raising of the cap and new spending authority.
Spivack said that while the CRA has talked in terms of setting a new spending cap at $7.1 billion, in fact, that figure grossly exaggerates the actual amount the agency would spend. "We're talking hundreds of millions of dollars now," he said.
Unless the cap is raised, no new projects can be implemented. "We're pretty much on hold now," Spivack said. "All the money that's being spent is pretty much all going to pay off debts [on old projects], not new projects."
The long-range plans affected include rehabilitating hundreds of units in aging hotels to make them habitable for low-income families; bringing new life to vacant or underutilized office buildings along Broadway and 6th, 7th and Spring streets; developing new housing in the South Park area; building new parks in Central City East, an area with 14,000 inhabitants and only two small parks, and repaving the pockmarked Broadway.
Spivack said if the CRA is denied the financial wherewithal to proceed with these plans, then "other jurisdictions or the private sector" will have to pick up the revitalization tab. "But that is unlikely to happen," he said. "That's why we need this 1977 stipulated judgment amended."
Bernardi has also filed lawsuits against the City Council and the CRA board of directors, claiming that decisions made by these bodies in December, 1993, to facilitate raising the spending cap were reached in violation of the state's Brown Act, a measure guaranteed to ensure that government agencies meet in public and provide advance notice of their meetings.
Those lawsuits, however, met with little success.