A proposal to redevelop an old Latino section of the City of San Fernando has sent shudders through the neighborhood because many fear that they could be forced from their homes.
Although the proposal is in its infancy, no other issue in recent years has generated so much controversy in the quiet, 2.4-square-mile town, city officials said. Usually, only a handful of people show up for City Council meetings, held every two weeks, but two meetings on this issue drew a total of 150.
Council members who proposed the plan as a way to revitalize a long-neglected neighborhood say they are surprised by the outcry. They are back-pedaling on the proposal and promise to defer to the recommendations of a newly formed citizens' advisory committee.
The issue is particularly sensitive because the proposed redevelopment zone is centered in the barrio, an aging neighborhood of predominantly longtime residents and, in many cases, lifetime ones.
"There is a lot of fear out there, especially with the older people who have lived here all their lives," said Evelio Franco, 33, a resident whose parents live a block away. "All of a sudden, attention has been focused on our little neighborhood and people are panicked."
The preliminary plan, unanimously approved by the five-member City Council in October, was virtually unnoticed by residents.
Mayor James Hansen said the proposal grew out of a desire to expand the city's downtown mall redevelopment zone to include a neighboring commercial strip.
Council members are concerned because Mission College will vacate 40,000 square feet of downtown storefront space in about two years. The school will move to a new campus in Sylmar.
Also, a former supermarket on Mission Boulevard has been vacant for nearly three years. The building and parking lot have become an eyesore, marred with graffiti, weeds and boarded-up windows.
Councilman Jess Margarito moved to enlarge the zone to include the run-down storefronts along Kalisher Street and the adjacent residential neighborhood, the barrio.
When Margarito was elected in 1984, one of his priorities was to improve housing in this neighborhood, the city's poorest. During Margarito's one-year term as mayor, the council directed the Police Department to crack down on the drug dealing there.
"There are not enough resources in the city to stop the deterioration of this community," Margarito said. He said redevelopment would provide resources to finance loans or grants to homeowners to fix up their houses.
The proposal, which authorized the city to begin studying the 55-acre area as a possible redevelopment zone, was approved 4 to 0. Councilman Ray Silva, who lives on one of the 200 pieces of property in the proposed zone, did not vote because of a potential conflict of interest.
Cities may designate blighted parcels of land for renewal. Once parcels are within a redevelopment zone, the city's redevelopment agency generally buys property and then resells it at a discount to developers. This encourages construction in otherwise unattractive areas.
The agency can condemn property and force property owners to sell at the market price. This enables the city to assemble large parcels for private developers. The city pays the cost to relocate merchants, homeowners or tenants.
The benefits come in the form of the increased property-tax dollars that result from the higher assessed values of the new or improved sites. Taxes above those paid when the zone was created go to the redevelopment agency. That money is used to finance more improvements.
A city report says the barrio's buildings are 50 years or older and, in "many cases, maintenance has been lacking, resulting in deterioration and/or dilapidation." The neighborhood is troubled by a "high density of population and overcrowding," and many homes have inadequate ventilation, light and sanitation, it says.
As part of the redevelopment process, the city is required to form a citizens' advisory committee if there is the possibility that homeowners could be displaced through eminent domain.
On Dec. 23, the city sent about 200 letters to property owners asking them to participate in the committee. Two sentences set off alarms.
One said all property in the area "is subject to acquisition by purchase or condemnation." The other said assistance would be provided to anyone who was "relocated as a result of such acquisitions."
The letter was "like throwing a glass of cold water in their faces," Margarito said. "If we had to do it over, we should have had better communication and held meetings with the community beforehand."
Silva said: "I didn't think it would create so much turmoil. I thought the people would be ready for something like this. "But los abuelitos , our grandparents, don't understand this."
A meeting Jan. 7 turned into a heated hearing attended by more than 100 people who demanded to know about redevelopment.
"We don't know what the city wants. All they say is that they want to improve the area," Salvador Alcontara, 35, who rents a home in the neighborhood, said in an interview afterward. "I'm concerned that if people are displaced, they won't be able to afford to live elsewhere."
On Thursday, about 50 people attended a quieter meeting, at which a 34-member citizens' advisory committee was formed.
Three City Council members said they will follow the recommendations of the committee on whether to proceed with the entire redevelopment expansion.
"I don't see any reason for upsetting such a large number of people," Councilman Dan Acuna said.
Mayor Hansen said he has asked to open the issue for discussion at the next City Council meeting Feb. 1. "You can't have a part of your community living in fear," he said.