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Redevelopment Roadblock

October 05, 2002

We're ashamed of our downtown. We have dozens of beautiful old buildings, the kind that people die for in New York, and we treat them like eyesores, as if we're waiting for them to fall down so we can sweep the bricks away and build another parking garage. Those buildings can be filled with people.

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That was building developer Tom Gilmore talking with Times staff writer Robert A. Jones in 1999.

Since then, a revival has begun on the north side of downtown Los Angeles, roughly between Temple and 6th streets, inspired by the new cathedral, Walt Disney Concert Hall and Gilmore's own redevelopment of the city's Old Bank District.

The bank district redevelopment was a good start, but only that. Four months ago, the Los Angeles City Council approved a more ambitious effort to breathe life into downtown's biggest swath of blight: 879 bedraggled acres stretching from a parking lot near Staples Center to downtown's crime-ridden skid row.

The Community Redevelopment Agency's plan would save gracious old buildings from rot and the bulldozer, mix market-rate and low-income housing, and, if Gilmore is lucky, make him and other money men with a stomach for risk a healthy profit. Cheers all around, right? Of course not.

Two lawsuits against the CRA, a city department, are imperiling the project.

Filed by Los Angeles County and the Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness, the lawsuits seek to up the ante on what the developers and the city must pledge to get the project started.

Stalemate is in nobody's best interest. If downtown redevelopment stalls, there will be no new tax revenues for anyone. Mayor James K. Hahn should help the CRA tighten its plan to ensure that the agency fairly allocates future tax dollars to affordable housing.

State law requires that 20% of property tax revenues generated by the project go to affordable and assisted housing. The CRA says it is willing to set aside 25% for affordable housing, but it has not specified when and how it will begin meeting that obligation.

The coalition should recognize that its key demand--that 50% of new jobs created by redevelopment go to local residents--is wildly unreasonable.

Developers, like people in any business, don't work to lose money; they are not the International Monetary Fund, able to bankroll big solutions to social problems.

The county's key argument--that 30 acres of the redevelopment area near Staples Center are not "blighted" and therefore not under the CRA's jurisdiction--is equally indefensible. The county may be correct in the strictest legal sense because the area in question is now a parking lot that generates about $7 million a year in taxes.

However, the county needs to think bigger. Ultimately the redevelopment--by creating more than 12,000 dwellings for rich and poor, as well as millions of square feet of commercial, industrial and entertainment space--would generate thousands of jobs and revenues for the very social services it says the CRA plan would threaten. Even the county has to acknowledge that a "24/7" downtown holds a bigger payoff than a parking lot.

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