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In City Hall's Chess Match, Poor People Are the Pawns : Los Angeles: The fight to control the redevelopment agency could backfire if it yields business-as-usual, not genuine moves on housing.

January 13, 1991|William Fulton | William Fulton is editor of California Planning and Development Report, a Ventura-based monthly newsletter

The big story of the week around Los Angeles City Hall was the million-dollar golden parachute that the Community Redevelopment Agency gave to administrator John Tuite to get rid of him. The controversy has given new fuel to redevelopment critics on the City Council who may--at last--succeed in wresting control of the agency from Mayor Tom Bradley.

It would be a shame, however, if Tuite's departure is discerned as nothing more than the latest move in an ongoing political chess match within City Hall. All the machinations surrounding the CRA are symptomatic of something far more important than political infighting: a reassessment of the purposes redevelopment has been used for, both in Los Angeles and statewide. Combined with the forced departure of L.A. Planning Director Ken Topping a couple of months ago, the CRA controversy provides a rare opportunity to reshape the way the city's planning process operates.

Few laws provide California cities with more raw land-use power than redevelopment. As California's successor to the federal urban-renewal effort, redevelopment provides cities with important tools that are supposed to be used to revive "blighted" areas--especially eminent domain and certain special taxing powers. These tools permit cities to lasso property- tax funds inside redevelopment areas that otherwise would have to be shared with counties, school districts and other government agencies.

But redevelopment is rarely used in truly blighted areas. Most cities use it as a financial weapon rather than a tool of social action. They make a papier-mache finding of blight in a marginally depressed area, then use redevelopment's powers to lure developers promising to build projects rich with tax revenue.

In Los Angeles, Bradley has long been closely associated with downtown redevelopment projects. The downtown skyline, subsidized by redevelopment funds, is a key component in his vision of Los Angeles as a "World City"; skyrocketing land values downtown have given CRA an enormous tax base; and with a board appointed entirely by the mayor, the agency is mostly beyond the control of the meddlesome City Council.

But in the last few years, as slow-growth sentiment has increased, so has criticism of the CRA--and of redevelopment generally. Los Angeles County officials have accused the city of using the CRA to hoard tax money. The Legal Aid Society and other poverty advocates have hammered the CRA for allegedly giving short shrift to affordable-housing issues. On a broader scale, several redevelopment projects around Southern California have been toppled by grass-roots opposition from small businesses and working-class homeowners.

Faced with this kind of criticism, Bradley and his aides--especially Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani--have recognized that the mayor can't afford to be as gung-ho about the skyline as he used to be. Over the past two years, Fabiani has tried to push the mayor's political image away from the CRA's deal-and-build orientation. But it's been a struggle because the CRA's agenda continues to be set by James Wood, an AFL-CIO executive whom Bradley appointed chairman of the CRA board and now can't dislodge without losing labor support.

This is where the political maneuvering over Tuite's departure gets thick. He was brought in as administrator after Wood won a power struggle with Tuite's strong-minded predecessor, Edward Helfeld. A onetime clergyman and social activist, Tuite was viewed as somebody who could provide a soft liberal front for Wood, thereby helping the agency defuse criticism that it was not sensitive to social issues, while Wood continued to pursue a business-oriented agenda. Tuite's departure may have been an attempt by the mayor's office to weaken Wood, or it may have been the price Wood paid for the mayor's continuing support.

Ironically, the cynical rap on Tuite's front-man role is not completely justified. Under his tenure, the agency has proved far more responsible on affordable-housing issues than most other redevelopment agencies in the state. It has, for example, provided major funding for renovation of old hotels in the Skid Row area, homes for some of the poorest of the poor.

In any event, the Tuite affair--and the controversy over his big payoff--has opened the door for new thinking on how redevelopment ought to be practiced in Los Angeles. But will this opportunity be used to reshape the redevelopment process, or merely to reorganize the game so that the chips are sitting in front of the City Council rather than the mayor?

Redevelopment critics such as council members Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina are hungering for a chance to gain control over CRA. They fell far short in an attempt to do so last year, succeeding only in setting up an oversight committee chaired by Molina. But the shameful size of the Tuite payoff seems likely to turn things around and generate enough votes for a council takeover.

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