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Walters: The politics of reviving redevelopment in California

Two years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators eliminated redevelopment, the decades-old program by which cities repackaged land and generated financing for projects to eradicate urban blight.

Brown contended that there were better uses for the $5 billion in property taxes that 400-plus redevelopment agencies retained each year, rather than sharing with other local agencies.

Redevelopment also angered conservatives who saw local governments arbitrarily seizing property from small businesses and homeowners and giving it, along with subsidies, to politically connected developers.

Redevelopment finances are still being unwound, with Brown’s Department of Finance jousting — sometimes in court — with local officials over which assets must be liquidated and which cover pre-repeal commitments.

Meanwhile, legislators who voted to abolish redevelopment have been writing proposals to re-establish it, with changes, under some other name.

The most ambitious, Senate Bill 1, is being carried by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. It would authorize a local government to create a Sustainable Communities Investment Authority with many of the powers of a redevelopment agency to foster, as a staff analysis puts it, “development in transit priority areas, small walkable communities and clean energy manufacturing sites.” SB 1 needs just one more Senate floor vote to reach Brown’s desk. But revival bills were held up last year as the governor let it be known that he considered them to be premature, since redevelopment is still being wound down.

Brown is now proposing a relatively modest response. He would let local governments create “infrastructure financing districts” with 55 percent approval of local voters, rather than the current two-thirds vote, and expand their powers somewhat.

That falls short of what redevelopment advocates want, and they are not pinning their hopes solely on the Capitol. They’ve filed an initiative that would reinstate redevelopment agencies with even broader powers, calling them Job and Education Development agencies.

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