DOWNEY — Depending on who is talking, the proposed expansion of the city's redevelopment district along Firestone Boulevard is the path to economic vitality or a road over which bulldozers may someday pass.
"We need to build on our commercial base," said Jim Cutts, Downey director of community development. "If we maintain some kind of a status quo in this city then we'll fall behind" other area cities that are attracting new business and industry.
"How are you going to react when they knock on your door and the guy knocking is driving a bulldozer," said Michael E. Sullivan, president of Downey CARES, a group of business and property owners along Firestone. "It should not be necessary for the city to have the power to condemn private property and then give it or sell it to a developer to make money on."
Hearing Scheduled Tuesday
The City Council will hear those arguments and others Tuesday during a public hearing to decide whether to add 305 acres to a 125-acre redevelopment zone in the heart of Downey's commercial district. The hearing will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall.
Approval of the expanded redevelopment zone is expected to be anything but easy. Lined up against it are a citizens advisory group on redevelopment called the Project Area Committee, Los Angeles County and Downey CARES.
As proposed by the city's Redevelopment Agency, the addition would include 305 acres both north and south of Firestone Boulevard, from Old River School Road on the west to the city boundary on the east. Land use in the area is mixed with commercial and industrial uses accounting for 34% of the area. There are 168 single-family homes and multifamily structures in the original redevelopment area and the proposed addition.
When a redevelopment district is created, property taxes used to support traditional government services are frozen. Additional tax revenue from the higher value of redeveloped properties is diverted to the redevelopment agency. The agency uses that money to promote redevelopment by financing public improvements, providing developers with discounts on land prices and other incentives.
As proposed, the 30-year plan would give the Redevelopment Agency condemnation powers for 12 years. Owner-occupied residential property would be exempt, but once the original owner leaves the property, it also would be subject to condemnation.
Despite those restrictions, it is the power of eminent domain that most worries opponents of the plan.
The advisory committee, which is composed of local homeowners and businessmen, voted last month to recommend that the City Council strip the agency of its power of eminent domain in the original district and the proposed addition if it were approved. Then it voted to reject the expansion altogether.
Two-Thirds Vote Required
A two-thirds City Council vote is required to approve the plan against the advisory group's recommendation. With Mayor James S. Santangelo abstaining because of a conflict of interest, that would be three of the four voting council members.
Sandra Haney, an advisory group member who owns a home in the area, opposes the plan primarily because it would give the city the power to seize property of businesses and new homeowners in the zone.
"If I put my home up for sale I have to notify them (potential buyers) they could lose their house the next day," she said. "That damages the value of my property, and that person isn't protected from eminent domain and it's not fair for them."
Haney said she initially opposed the plan because of the effect it would have on homeowners, but later decided it was bad for a businessman, too, because "his investment in his business is just as important as my home is to me."
The Redevelopment Agency counters that it has never seized residential property to make way for a redevelopment project. Since the original district was formed in 1978, the Redevelopment Agency has used the power of eminent domain to acquire four small businesses along Downey Avenue and Firestone Boulevard for redevelopment projects, Cutts said.
Cutts said the City Council, which doubles as the Community Development Commission and decides redevelopment questions, is "very sensitive" about using the power of eminent domain.
But he said it is a vital ingredient to fulfill plans to redevelop the Firestone corridor, which contains small lots that may need to be unified to be made attractive for larger commercial developments. The Redevelopment Agency will encourage participation by current business operators, and relocation assistance would be available for those who may be moved, Cutts said.
"If you have a case where you're going in and purchasing a number of properties and you have someone sitting in the middle who doesn't want to sell, then we'd consider using eminent domain," Cutts said.