Fears for the Future on Costa Mesa's West Side

Times Staff Writer

Hope Leon lives on Costa Mesa's west side, where her husband's family lived for more than 80 years and where a monument, complete with flagpole, stands in his honor. But these days, she fears the city will take her property.

The 63-year-old widow is among hundreds of residents and business owners in the city's ethnically diverse west side who are worried that their homes and properties will be taken from them in a redevelopment push.

The anxiety has been building for years as politicians have talked about this corner of the city being blighted, dense with low-income Latino immigrants and dependent on social services. There's a job center, a soup kitchen and one of the county's largest poverty relief organizations.

The city's vice mayor was elected on a pledge to crack down on immigrants he said have been drawn to the neighborhoods west of Harbor Boulevard, the city's main artery. He now chairs the redevelopment agency.

The agency, which is made up of City Council members, may carve out a redevelopment area as early as Monday, though it will be months before the city determines what properties might be affected, or if it will condemn any.

Still, concerns are running high. A recent redevelopment meeting had to be rescheduled when officials determined they couldn't handle the hundreds of protesters who had shown up.

Under consideration is a plan that would expand a 200-acre redevelopment area to include an additional 434 acres representing about 600 property owners.

The designation would give the city the right to use eminent domain to buy the land. City officials have suggested that streets could be better maintained and zoning could be altered to create a more uniform look and upscale housing.

Costa Mesa's west side is where the first tract homes sprang up after World War II. Boatyards and manufacturing plants went in next to residential areas. Gangs took root and the city fought back, putting in a police substation. A boxing club was established as an alternative to gang life. A old gas station became a job center to keep day laborers from soliciting work in a local park. An old Chinese restaurant gave way to a soup kitchen.

If the neighborhood has slipped a bit, it hasn't eroded the comfort people like Leon feel living there. She keeps her front lawn as short as a golf green, the only strip of green in a mostly industrial area off Placentia Avenue. She grows lemons, peaches, apricots, pomegranates and cherries. She smiles and greets day laborers walking to the nearby job center.

Mike Robinson, the city's planning and redevelopment manager, said Leon doesn't need to be concerned. Yet. Even if the city approves the new boundaries Monday, all that does is let consultants begin assessing each property to determine which qualify as blighted and should be taken over by eminent domain. The city could redirect some tax revenue to improvements in the zone.

Chris Steel, the vice mayor who chairs the redevelopment agency, has promoted the project as part of his campaign to clean up the west side and rid the city of immigrant workers whose children, he says, overwhelm the school district. "I am under a lot of pressure from both sides and the council is very divided," said Steel. "We need to calm people down because there are a lot of emotions here. At the same time, there are a lot of people who want the west side cleaned up."

Councilwoman Libby Cowan is more cautious. "At this point," she said, "I am not convinced ... this area qualifies for redevelopment."

The advancing plan alarms business owners as well as residents.

Roger MacGregor, owner of MacGregor Yacht Corp., said the plan, "has created a certain amount of hysteria. Little old ladies are afraid of losing their homes.

"If this area is considered a redevelopment area, all private investment will stop," said MacGregor, who, five years ago, invested about $1 million in property improvements. John Hawley, owner of Railmakers, which makes stainless steel rails, says the redevelopment process forces taxpayers to pay for attorneys and consultants.

"I feel that the natural procession of market forces will take care of the situation better than redevelopment," said Hawley.

Although the use of eminent domain could be years off, if it's employed at all, homeowners like Leon would be paid fair market value for their properties and offered assistance to relocate. But for Leon, it's unthinkable.

"What I want," she said, "is that the place where (her husband) was born, where his parents wed, where I brought my children, is preserved, as a memory of him."

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