BALDWIN PARK — This blue-collar town, described three years ago as a suburban "disaster area," has received a $2.7-million federal grant that officials are counting on to revitalize the city.
The Urban Development Action Grant will enable the city to begin preliminary work on the Puente-Merced Redevelopment Project, which will include a 200-room Hilton hotel and a commercial center.
Development of the barren 17-acre site bordered by the San Bernardino Freeway and Puente and Merced avenues is expected to generate employment and tax revenue and to attract other commerce.
Baldwin Park is one of only two California cities that qualified this year for the grants, which are designed to supplement redevelopment funds. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants are based on cities' economic hardship, minority population, unemployment and median family income. Riverside received a similar $2.2-million grant to renovate its famed Mission Inn.
Jack Flynn, spokesman for HUD in Washington, said such grants are contingent on cities raising other funds for their redevelopment projects. "We fill the gap between the cost of the project and the amount that can be raised," Flynn said.
The Puente-Merced project was Baldwin Park's first redevelopment target area but the land went undeveloped for 10 years after planning was halted by legal action in 1974. Since then, the city has initiated three other redevelopment projects and is planning two others.
Last December the city's redevelopment agency issued $20 million in industrial development bonds that, under federal tax rules, could be allocated to the Puente-Merced project only if the grant was approved. Notice of the approval was received last week.
John Hemer, assistant city manager, said the grant money will be used to clear the site for developer Stanley Gribble of Newport Beach, builder of about 15 shopping centers, including Montclair Plaza and the Huntington Oaks Shopping Center in Monrovia.
City Manager Ralph Webb said the revived project attacks some of Baldwin Park's worst problems--unemployment, increasing deterioration along the freeway corridor and lack of a hotel, supermarkets and major stores. It is expected to generate 750 permanent jobs.
In 1982 a Rand Corp. study called Baldwin Park one of 14 U.S. suburban "disaster areas" in a report that examined income averages, crime rates, age and condition of housing and several other factors.
"Downtown was a shambles," Mayor Jack White said. "It was bad enough to have to tear it down. Redevelopment was the only way to go.
"The average city lot was once one-half acre," said White, who has lived there since 1959. "We had very big weed patches. Then they were developed into flag lots and alleys leading to as many as three houses--all bad."
White and City Manager Webb said developers bypassed Baldwin Park as they built entire communities east of Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. Now they say the city is in "a fortunate location" because of its proximity to Los Angeles and Pasadena and to major freeways. It is midway between Ontario and Los Angeles International airports and has a large potential labor force.
The Puente-Merced Project follows a spurt of recent growth in Baldwin Park. Several hundred residential units have been built in two redevelopment project areas in the center of town and several large industries have moved into an industrial park in the city's northwest corner. Population has jumped from about 47,000 in 1980 to 55,000 today.
But income levels remain low. In 1980 the city's median family income was $17,000 a year, below the county average of $21,000 and the national average of $20,000. Latinos make up 58% of the population, there is a growing but uncounted Asian population, and the rest is mostly Anglo.
The newcomers are mostly young families attracted to new condominiums in the downtown redevelopment areas, where prices are about $70,000.
City officials contend that commercial development is needed for residents who have no place to shop in town. The planned project is expected to provide sales, hotel and redevelopment tax revenue for the city and to attract other commercial ventures. Hemer said the new hotel is expected to serve people who do business in the area.
Baldwin Park is planning two other redevelopment project areas adjacent to the San Bernardino Freeway. A 22-acre parcel at the intersection of the 605 Freeway is being developed for industrial use, and officials are studying a two-mile stretch along the freeway corridor they hope to upgrade with new businesses through redevelopment.