Guided cities fixing blighted urban areas

Times Staff Writer

Eugene B. Jacobs, an expert in redevelopment law who helped California cities use the powerful tool to transform blighted neighborhoods into vibrant pieces of the urban fabric, died Nov. 25 at a hospital in Provo, Utah. He was 84.

The cause of death was believed to be respiratory failure, his son Douglas Jacobs said.

In a legal career that spanned nearly 60 years, Jacobs, through his law firm, counseled or represented 80 cities and helped write many of the documents commonly used in redevelopment transactions. He also helped draft a bill recodifying California redevelopment law and a bill that created the California Department of Housing and Community Development and a related commission.


Though California’s key redevelopment law preceded Jacobs -- it was created in 1945 -- he played a significant role in early cases that determined how the law would be interpreted and practiced in California. He is known by some as the “father of redevelopment law.”

“It’s probably safe to say if some of those early actions and defenses by Gene had gone the other way, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing today in terms of revitalizing communities,” said John Shirey, executive director of the California Redevelopment Assn.

Though not widely known to the general public, Jacobs shaped the landscape of communities throughout the state. New shopping districts, revitalized downtowns and the creation of low-income housing can be traced to his work. Because California is considered a model for redevelopment law, his influence extends far beyond the state’s borders, Shirey said.

In post-World War II California, when Jacobs began his redevelopment work, cities faced hard times. Beginning with the Great Depression and through the war years, there had been little investment in urban core areas.

“The suburbs were beginning to boom, and downtowns were losing both middle-class population and major retailing,” said Joe Coomes, a Sacramento-based redevelopment attorney and a longtime friend of Jacobs who has worked in the field since the 1960s.

Redevelopment law offers local governments a way to eliminate blight in designated areas and stimulate economic development by attracting private investment. The laws allow municipalities to assemble land for development and use the additional property tax revenue the projects generate to finance bonds issued to improve the area and create affordable housing. A controversial element of redevelopment is eminent domain, under which governments may force individual property owners to sell.

In the early 1950s, when Jacobs worked as a deputy attorney general under Atty. Gen. Pat Brown, property owners challenged the law in Redevelopment Agency of the City and County of San Francisco vs. Hayes. Brown asked his deputies if they were interested in preparing a friend-of-the-court brief in that case.

“Gene put up his hand and said, ‘Yes,’ and that started his career in redevelopment law,” said Murray Kane, a longtime friend and attorney who works at a law firm that succeeded the firm founded by Jacobs.

In the Hayes lawsuit, opponents argued that the condemnation of their land was not for a public use because the land was undeveloped and eventually would be used for private residences.

In the brief and in a companion law-review article that he co-wrote, Jacobs argued that unused portions of cities “have been left for dead and they would continue to be nothing but serious burdens -- physically, socially, economically -- on the community,” Kane said, recalling Jacobs’ argument.

The court ruled in favor of the redevelopment agency, and the decision set a precedent for an interpretation of “public use” as “public advantage.” With that victory, Jacobs became a resource for others, and in 1960 he left the attorney general’s office to become the first in-house general counsel for the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles.

Early in his tenure Jacobs worked on redevelopment in the Bunker Hill area of downtown. In the early 1960s, Bunker Hill was a distressed area: The city classified 63% of the residences as substandard or slum, and an additional 21% were in poor condition. A large percentage were built before 1900.

“It was deemed at that time to be the essential project for the city of Los Angeles to undertake if it was to overcome what was essentially a lack of investment that occurred,” Coomes said.

The project involved razing existing buildings and selling the land to private investors who would develop “a high standard multiple-dwelling residence.” But a group of landowners challenged the move on numerous points. The case ended up before the state Supreme Court, with Jacobs as lead attorney. The court upheld the city’s redevelopment plan.

“Bunker Hill was the landmark redevelopment decision in California because in that project virtually all of the issues that had to be settled with respect to the California redevelopment law were settled,” Coomes said. “What is evidence of blight? What are the rights of property owners for owner participation? What are the relocation responsibilities of the agency?”

In the mid-1960s Jacobs started his own law practice. He continued to serve as counsel to the Community Redevelopment Agency, but he also worked as special counsel, litigator and advisor to many other municipalities.

As federal grants and loans for redevelopment grew scarce, Jacobs suggested ways that local governments could begin redevelopment without federal dollars.

“You have to show the developer an opportunity to build on a site he can find nowhere else,” he said in a 1970 article in The Times.

Eugene Brown Jacobs Jr. was born Aug. 14, 1923, in Salt Lake City and was raised in Oakland. For two years during World War II he served in the U.S. Naval Reserve. After his time in the service, Jacobs enrolled in UC Berkeley, where he received a bachelor’s degree and, in 1951, a law degree.

“He worked his way through college as a playground director in Berkeley,” said Douglas Jacobs. “He loved working with kids -- teaching them sports, Sunday school, anything.”

Jacobs and his wife, Rebecca, whom he married in 1944, eventually had five children. In addition to his wife and son Douglas, Jacobs is survived by four children, Stephen Jacobs and Lorna Jacobs Reed, both of Provo, Reed Jacobs of King City, Calif., and Craig Jacobs of Jefferson City, Mo.; and a sister, Gloria Jacobs Heywood of Arizona.

Jacobs moved to Utah in 1980 and began teaching law at Brigham Young University. He also headed a ward of the Mormon Church.

As an early advocate of redevelopment, Jacobs was often in the position of explaining a controversial tool. But he was adept at allaying fears, whether speaking to lawmakers or community groups.

“He always raised the level of every discussion he was in, not just legally and technically, but ethically also,” Kane said. “He was not only comfortable, he made the majority of people in the room comfortable, regardless of how they felt at the beginning of the meeting. He always believed in trying to obtain consensus.”