By Will Carless

Thursday, March 27, 2008 | The government agency tasked with redeveloping and revitalizing swaths of southeastern San Diego has resurrected a plan to corral a large chunk of Logan Heights and other neighborhoods into a new redevelopment district.

The plan, which is being driven by the Southeastern Economic Development Corp., an arm of the city’s redevelopment agency, has sparked alarm among several community activists in the area, who said they have been ill-informed about SEDC’s plans and that there needs to be more community discussion about whether creating a redevelopment area is the right way to help the neighborhoods. The activists also expressed concern about SEDC’s recent legal troubles, including accusations of fraud that have been levied against the agency’s president, Carolyn Y. Smith.

Expanding the redevelopment zone to include the new neighborhoods would allow SEDC to begin capturing tax money from the area, which it could then use to complete revitalization projects and offer subsidies to developers working within its boundaries. It would place the redevelopment effort for the neighborhoods firmly in the hands of SEDC, which would also have the power of eminent domain within the redevelopment zone.

SEDC currently administers San Diego’s redevelopment efforts in a seven-square mile zone east of downtown, bounded by State Route 94 to the north, Interstate 5 to the south and west and 69th Street east.

Councilman Ben Hueso, who opposed the redevelopment zone proposal when it was previously floated in the mid-1990s, said he now supports at least studying the creation of the new redevelopment area.

But Hueso said SEDC should not push forward any plans for redevelopment unless it has the full support of the community and is working hand-in-hand with local leaders. He said the community concerns are “troubling,” and that they echo the concerns he had in the 1990s about SEDC’s openness and transparency.

“If they’re not going to have an open process, I’m not only going to halt the redevelopment process, I’m going to change the relationship I have with SEDC,” Hueso said.

Smith said it is premature for community activists to even be thinking about the plans for creating a redevelopment area. The plans are at such an early stage that there has been little need for community input so far, she said. As the process gets further down the track, Smith said, SEDC will welcome the opportunity to work with anyone in the community who is interested in the process. And Smith said any concerns about eminent domain are ill-founded.

“We’ve never used eminent domain,” she said. “We respect each individual neighborhood.”

The new redevelopment zone, called the Dells Imperial Redevelopment Project Area, which would be bordered on the south by Interstate 5, on the east by Interstate 15 and would include a thin section of land along either side of Market Street, according to a staff memorandum.

The SEDC board of directors approved the boundaries for the new redevelopment area and approved moving forward with the adoption process for the area at its board meeting on Jan. 23.

A local consulting firm, Keyser Marston Associates, will now study the area to see if there is adequate evidence of blight in the neighborhoods to merit the creation of a redevelopment agency. By law, a redevelopment area can only be set up if the neighborhood is deemed blighted and if the elimination of that blight cannot reasonably be expected to be accomplished by private enterprise.

But three local activists who live in Logan Heights said SEDC has failed to include the community from the get-go.

The activists said they had no idea the Jan. 23 board meeting was taking place and that they only recently found out about SEDC’s expansion plans. The activists said they believe the approval of the redevelopment action was sneaked through without any real opportunity for public comment.

A February SEDC board meeting was cancelled after community members complained to the City Attorney’s Office that the public was not given adequate notice of the meeting. Huston Carlyle, a chief deputy city attorney, said his office was notified that SEDC had not informed the public of the meeting 72 hours in advance, as they are required to do by law. Carlyle said he notified Smith of the violation and she cancelled the meeting.

“I would like this to be more of a dialogue,” said David Alvarez, a member of Barrios Unidos Hoy Organizados, a grassroots community group in southeastern San Diego. “Right now this feels more like an imposition.”

Ben Rivera, a member of the Logan Heights Town Council, said he wants to see a series of forums held in the communities within the new redevelopment area. Local residents need to understand the implications of the proposal, he said, and they currently have no idea what SEDC’s plans or goals are.

Smith said the SEDC board’s actions are simply the first in a long line of bureaucratic measures needed to create the redevelopment area. She said the process could take as long as three years, and that SEDC plans to create a project area committee, made up of community members who will guide the creation of the redevelopment area.

If the redevelopment zone is approved, it will allow SEDC to collect tax dollars from within that community that otherwise would have been spread around to various levels of government to spend exclusively on redevelopment efforts.

“Everything SEDC does is redevelopment to benefit those who already live there,” Smith said. “We don’t want to push anyone out; we want the people who live there to get involved.”

But Rivera said he and other community leaders in the Logan Heights area are wary of working with SEDC at all. Rivera said the agency has a reputation for “backroom dealing,” pointing to SEDC’s troubled Valencia Business Park project. And Rivera, who said his mother lives in one of SEDC’s current redevelopment areas, said he’s seen little evidence that SEDC’s redevelopment efforts actually benefit the neighborhoods where they work.

“I think SEDC hasn’t really done anything for the community. They’ve done some nice favors for developers,” Rivera said.

That sentiment was echoed by John Alvarado, a member of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ Stakeholders Committee for Barrio Logan, another grassroots group.

“They’re kind of an entity unto themselves,” Alvarado said. “They’ve got their own agenda and they’re going to keep this as dumb and blind as possible.”

Hueso said he is aware of SEDC’s recent troubles but said he plans to keep a stern watch over the agency’s handling of the new redevelopment zone. And he stressed that SEDC is still the best option the community has to get a strong redevelopment effort going in Logan Heights and the surrounding communities.

“I think I’ve put SEDC on notice,” he said. “I’m on a timeline here, I’ve been working on this for 10 years and I feel like SEDC is the only group sitting at the table. I’d be a fool not to talk to them.”

Voice of San