Los Angeles city officials are wailing that civilization as we know it may be imperiled if Gov. Jerry Brown has his way and kills community redevelopment agencies.
Maybe I’m just a postredevelopment Pollyanna, but I think our way of life would survive just fine. In fact, we’d be better off without them.
Why? Because CRAs are one of those well-intentioned initiatives that sounded great and started off well enough decades ago and have some accomplishments they can point to, such as the Hollywood & Highland Center. But over the years, they have devolved into corrupt little political fiefdoms that muck up the works and don’t do much good.
Sure, CRAs may encourage project construction in some supposedly blighted areas, but those developments mostly are just shifted over from another area. At least, that’s what the nonpartisan state Legislative Analyst’s Office reported a few weeks ago. It went on to say: “There is no reliable evidence that redevelopment projects attract businesses to the state or increase overall economic development in California.”
Ouch. After all these years and billions of dollars? No help?
But it’s worse. CRAs do harm.
For example, CRAs have a record of buying out old but often-functioning small businesses, clearing the land and then sitting on it for a decade. Or two.
Tim Cavanaugh, writing for Reason.com, pointed out that the Community Redevelopment Agency of L.A.’s Marlton Square development in the Crenshaw District is a boondoggle that’s been lingering for years. CRA/LA’s Slauson Central Retail Center has been envisioned but unbuilt now for 20 years.
“You could not devise a better machine for creating and maintaining urban blight if you tried,” he wrote.
After the 1992 riots, Cavanaugh wrote, the CRA/LA “was given a shockingly broad mandate to seize, assemble and develop land for high-end retail, housing and restaurants. The CRA now controls nearly $1 billion worth of real estate in South L.A., and almost none of it has been developed.”
In my view, the central problem is that CRAs here and across the country are fundamentally political bodies trying to be real estate developers. Sure, private-sector developers may be criticized for making decisions solely on whether any given project is likely to produce a big payout. But they actually make decisions. Political organizations, on the other hand, dither while deciding how their pals can get rewarded or their enemies punished. Projects get trapped in all manner of politically correct mandates and goals and sometimes get hijacked by politically connected but shady types. Commissioners ride the CRA like a hobbyhorse, such as union crusader Madeline Janis, who uses CRA/LA to impose her living-wage agenda (but at least she’s forthright and honest about it).
Big developers long ago learned to game the system, getting the benefits of CRAs’ largesse. All they have to do is cozy up to the political types. And the small businesses that are in the way of CRA-engineered plans? They don’t matter, and you can’t hear their screams anyway over the noise of the bulldozers bearing down on them.
I know some city officials are saying that the state needs CRAs because that’s the way things are done now. Without them, big developments in blighted areas won’t get built.
But you know, until a few decades ago, developments were conceived and built almost entirely by real estate visionaries with bold plans, willing to risk their own money or that of any bankroller they could talk into going along. Cities guided development through planning and zoning commissions.
So don’t say it can’t be done. That’s how America got built. And it wasn’t such a bad place.
Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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