BALDWIN PARK — To Mayor Jack White, the Sierra Vista Redevelopment Project is a golden opportunity for his city to boost its image and its revenues.
In place of the motels, mobile home parks and auto repair centers currently strewn on both sides of the San Bernardino Freeway, he envisions rows of retail stores, beckoning shoppers with nationally known names.
But to many of White's constituents, the project presents an ugly specter. They see it as sacrificing the rights of homeowners and small businessmen to the interests of developers and large corporations.
Instead of the promise of tax increment dollars, they see the threat of displacement, devaluation of their property and eminent domain.
The two views have clashed repeatedly since officials began studying the feasibility of the project--the city's sixth and largest redevelopment venture--in February, 1985.
Twice last month, hundreds of residents packed public hearings, pleading with council members to spare their neighborhoods from redevelopment and chastising them for ignoring the will of the people.
On Wednesday, the council gave final approval to a scaled-down Sierra Vista project that covers 623 acres adjoining the freeway and excludes 1,500 homes originally included in the redevelopment area.
At the same time, residents groups began gearing up for petition drives that could force a special election next year, giving Baldwin Park voters a chance to scuttle the project and remove three council members from office.
Under the terms of the project, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) will float bonds for as much as $200 million to help finance commercial and industrial development in the hope of luring major stores and businesses to the area, according to John Hemer, the city's director of Housing and Economic Development.
"One Gemco store could give us enough revenue to eliminate our utility tax," White said.
"We can't afford to let this prime freeway-corridor commercial land be used for things that aren't going to serve the city," White said. "If we just left it alone, a bunch of motels and apartments and other things would just perpetuate the blight."
Resident Loren Lovejoy, like most other members of the Baldwin Park Homeowners Group, originally opposed the project because his home was within the redevelopment area, and he feared that it would be condemned--despite assurances by city officials that this would never happen.
Now, after having persuaded the council to remove their homes from the redevelopment area, Lovejoy and other group members are launching a referendum drive against the project because of their philosophical opposition to placing the city in debt to provide incentives for corporations.
'Form of Corporate Socialism'
"We're not against progress, we're not against beautifying out city, but we feel free enterprise is the better way to go," Lovejoy said.
"We feel the CRA is really a form of corporate socialism," he said. "They are taking taxes to bribe big businesses to come in and buy property for much less than it is worth.
"They have all these utopian visions of all these beautiful buildings and all these jobs. They don't realize that the time to pay the piper could be disastrous."
Referendum proponents need to obtain 2,899 signatures of registered voters and submit them to the city by Oct. 28 to qualify the measure for the ballot, said City Clerk Linda Gair.
Meanwhile, a group calling itself Concerned Citizens for Better Government is circulating petitions to recall White and Councilmen Robert McNeill and Leo King, Gair said. Although the recall drive is officially intended to protest a 5% utility tax enacted by the council last year, recall proponents say they are also seeking to express discontent over the Sierra Vista project. McNeill and King both voted for the project.
If either measure qualifies, a special election will probably be held in the early part of next year, Gair said.
With popular sentiment now crucial to the existence of both the project and council members' jobs, city officials and project foes have begun a campaign of sorts.
Each side accuses the other of misrepresenting the project and preying on the public's ignorance of redevelopment law. Each group asserts that it represents the will of the people and charges that the opposition is dominated by outside interests.
'Welfare System' for Business
"What they (city officials) have done is confuse the residents so much. . . . I think the majority of citizens of Baldwin Park know nothing about redevelopment financing," said Sherry Passmore of the Citizens Property Rights Committee, a Temple City-based group that she said fights redevelopment abuses on the state and local level.
"They've siphoned off millions from the general fund to these redevelopment projects," Passmore said. "It looks like the projects are a success, but it's all backed by city money. . . . Basically it's turned into a welfare system for the business side."