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Six weeks ago, after a lengthy public records battle, we received spreadsheets, reports and charts from the city of San Diego’s downtown redevelopment agency about how downtrodden, or blighted, the city’s core remained.
The information, which cost taxpayers $162,000, was key to the legitimacy of a late-night redevelopment deal in Sacramento that gave downtown a big share of an estimated $6 billion in future property taxes, primarily at the state’s expense.
Redevelopment exists to improve rundown neighborhoods and until the Sacramento deal, the city was still deciding whether it could justify continued subsidies for downtown. The state legislation gave downtown the money without requiring the blight study, which the city canceled. We wanted to see what $162,000 of work showed — especially given that a preliminary draft of the blight study concluded that downtown remained blighted without much proof.
Before we set out to examine the data, we determined one of four conclusions was possible. The information would show that:
• Downtown had enough blight to justify the billions in future property taxes the state gave it.
• Downtown didn’t have enough blight to justify continued tax subsidies.
• It was unclear if enough blight remained to justify the amount of future property taxes downtown received. State law generally requires a connection between the amount of remaining blight and the tax dollars needed to eliminate that blight.
• Not enough work had been done to reach any conclusion about downtown blight, let alone how much money it should have received.
Two redevelopment experts agreed to a preliminary review of the data for us on the condition of anonymity. They concluded that not enough work had been done to make any kind of determination about downtown blight, and it would take a lot more time, money and effort to try to reach an answer.
The most significant data we had was a property-by-property analysis of downtown done by a blight consultant in September. The data was akin to a “downtown blight walk” that redevelopment boosters have argued would show the need for continued subsidies.
The analysis didn’t include any context for its findings, meaning it was a long way from knowing how much money downtown could have needed. For instance, the consultant made note of 70 potential defects for each property as minor as “litter larger than a gum wrapper” or “weeds” or as large as “unsafe building access.” Lots of places, the consultant noted, were in need of sidewalk repair, but so are properties all across the city. The consultant didn’t weigh the results to determine how much certain findings mattered more than others.
To be sure, this isn’t the consultant’s fault. The study was halted before its analysis was complete and both experts we spoke with agreed the methodology was solid.
This conclusion validates the claims of officials from the downtown redevelopment agency, the Centre City Development Corp., and its primary blight consultant, Keyser Marston. Both argued that not enough work had been completed to determine the remaining blight downtown.
The data doesn’t provide any clarity on the still-open question of the legitimacy of the late-night state legislation. Nor does it explain why Keyser Marston’s preliminary study concluded downtown remained blighted if not enough work was done. CCDC’s former board chairman had said that the study was only weeks away from going to City Council when the legislation passed.
Jerry Trimble, the local head of Keyser Marston, couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. But Jeff Graham, a vice president for redevelopment at CCDC, has suggested that what Keyser Marston produced could have been a template in the event that the findings justified blight conclusions.
Sometimes when reporting, larger events overtake the ones you’ve spent dozens of hours examining. Gov. Jerry Brown is attempting to eliminate redevelopment statewide, which could render meaningless the downtown legislation. That is, unless the city’s recent $4 billion effort to squirrel away redevelopment dollars holds up. The city targeted $2.3 billion in property taxes and other revenues downtown — or more than half the total plan — during the 20 additional years the law effectively granted redevelopment downtown.
Numerous organizations have taken aim at redevelopment since the governor announced his plans. On Monday, State Controller John Chiang released an audit of various redevelopment agencies, alleging a series of improprieties. One conclusion is germane here.
“Under current legal standards,” the report said, “virtually any condition could be construed to be blight.”
Though the legislature and courts have tightened blight definitions in recent years, Chiang’s position that blight findings are nebulous and highly subjective is on point. But if the governor succeeds, that might not even matter anymore.