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In the weeks since the City Council approved a new redevelopment plan for parts of southeastern San Diego, a heated debate has sprung about what the plan could mean for the community of Greater Logan Heights east of downtown.

Activists there have mobilized to oppose any plan that would give the city-run Southeastern Economic Development Corp. power to collect a share of property tax revenue from the community that it could reinvest to promote development there.

At the heart of their opposition has been a fear that allowing SEDC that power would leave the community vulnerable to eminent domain, which gives cities the power to condemn private property and force its owner to sell it for public use.

SEDC officials have repeatedly said the agency has no plans to use eminent domain in future redevelopment plans. But in recent community meetings about the agency’s plans, local activists have invoked fears over eminent domain to try to kill the possibility of redevelopment in their neighborhoods at all, frustrating SEDC officials who say they are willing to tailor redevelopment to the community’s wishes.

“If they don’t affirmatively request it, we won’t include it,” said Brian Trotier, SEDC’s interim president.

But that message has not been well communicated to residents of Greater Logan Heights, many of whom have little experience with redevelopment but harbor bad memories on how eminent domain was used in the past.

In the 1960s, eminent domain was used to clear away homes for construction of Interstate 5 and the Coronado Bridge nearby. Its legacy lingers in the mistrust that has characterized the relationship between active residents of those communities and local government ever since.

Officials say any decision to make eminent domain possible would have to be made by a group of residents elected to advise the agency on redevelopment in their communities. But the agency has struggled to convince suspicious residents that it has no plans for eminent domain, at the same time that activists have painted doomsday scenarios about how redevelopment could destroy their neighborhoods.

The result, at the community level, has been a debate about the merits and demerits of redevelopment even before many residents have a firm grasp of basic facts about redevelopment.

One resident activist, Remy Bermudez, distributed a flier that warned residents their communities were “under attack by a big Redevelopment Corporation known as SEDC… now trying to trick residents and homeowners into supporting their takeover of our neighborhoods,” and encouraging them to attend a meeting of the Sherman Heights Town Council to learn more.

At the July 7 meeting, which attracted more than 60 residents of Greater Logan Heights, residents said they were afraid that SEDC was planning to impose itself on their communities.

“When they talk about development, I am concerned that they are going to tear down a whole bunch of buildings and take away the charm and character of this community in the name of progress,” said one woman who addressed the crowd after introducing herself as Mariana.

But SEDC officials have said repeatedly that this fear reflects a misunderstanding of the redevelopment process. Even so, they said the communities are free to decide whether or not they want their communities to become redevelopment zones.

“We are not about tearing down homes or replacing neighborhoods with high-density development. We will only expand into this community if this community wants us to,” said Nancy Lytle, vice president of projects and development for SEDC.

At the meeting, she told audience members that redevelopment had great potential to improve neighborhood infrastructure without the need for eminent domain, and that unfounded fears about eminent domain should not rule out redevelopment altogether.

But the argument has remained unconvincing to residents and activists who view SEDC with suspicion. Outreach by the agency to successfully convey this message has faltered.

SEDC’s outreach in recent weeks has been conducted in English, despite the predominance of Spanish-speaking residents in Greater Logan Heights. Two recent community meetings hosted by SEDC were held at 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., difficult times for residents of the working class community to attend.

Active local residents have said those outreach strategies are insufficient and have shown that SEDC is insincere about its desire to include local input in its redevelopment plans. They have also stoked recalcitrance among the most active of residents.

At the July 7 meeting, some of those activists presented what they said were the worst-case scenarios if SEDC assumed responsibility for redeveloping their neighborhoods. One Logan Heights resident, Ben Rivera, presented a documentary telling the story of Chavez Ravine, a Mexican residential community in Los Angeles that in the 1950s was cleared away and replaced with the Dodgers baseball stadium.

Audience members shook their heads during the screening.

In response to the outcry of vocal residents, SEDC last week decided to change its approach to how it would choose what neighborhoods to include.

The agency initially planned to consider the entire area and eliminate neighborhoods whose residents and business owners did not want to be included.

Rather than ask communities to opt out of the potential area, the agency will ask communities to ask to be included if they want to become a future redevelopment area. Otherwise, it won’t include them, Lytle said.

She said the new plan would reassure residents that SEDC was only interested in expanding where it was wanted and quiet claims that the agency was trying to trick neighborhoods into becoming redevelopment zones.

Trotier said it was not yet clear how SEDC would seek out resident input on whether specific neighborhoods want to be included, but he said the agency could not rely on the opinions of a vocal few to determine the fate of entire neighborhoods.

He said SEDC would have a better sense of the community’s opinion once it started the process for local outreach required by state law.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

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