Views on redevelopment

So, downtown redevelopment. A colossal waste of dough? Or a needed screwdriver in the economic stimulus toolchest?

On the dough-wasting side of the debate is Washoe County CommissionerJim Galloway. Galloway asked anti-redevelopment experts from California to speak at Monday’s Reno Redevelopment Agency meeting, and councilman Dave Ridgon, a big fan of open government though not necessarily a foe of redevelopment, put the guests on the agenda.

City councilman Steve Vargas from Brea, Calif., in Orange County, told livid tales of redevelopment abuses in his hometown. Brea, a city of about 36,000, landed itself in $455 million of debt after bulldozing a 50-acre downtown core and building a big, beautiful, award-winning mall there. The project won awards. But in the process, the city was “nearly ripped apart,” Vargas said. And because of the “creative” use of affordable housing grants to pay for street improvements, sewers and other elements of infrastructure, the city now faces a $30 million lawsuit.

“That’s coming back to haunt us now,” he said.

Another anti-redevelopment spokesperson, Sherry Curtis, called redevelopment agencies unwelcome aspects of totalitarian government.

“Speaking on behalf of residents, taxpayers and seniors on fixed incomes, I’m horrified at the powers the redevelopment agencies contain,” Curtis said. Powers of eminent domain threaten existing businesses that city authorities are all too eager to shut down, she said. And when it comes to designating a part of town that’s “blighted,” who gets to make the call?

“Blight depends on the eye of the beholder,” Curtis said, agreeing that redevelopment is a tool, “… a rusty tool that leaves an infection in your city—and that infection is debt.”

The Reno Redevelopment Agency is considering expanding its redevelopment district, possibly redrawing the boundaries in February. The agency—composed of Reno City Council members—heard Monday from several citizens who agreed that redevelopment is the devil and others who argued that it’s saving downtown.

A supportive letter from Siena owner/developer Barney Ng was read: “I truly believe that the agency has played an integral part in the success of downtown Reno and the Truckee River.”

Ng spent $70 million in “real money” because he fell in love with the community and because “Reno believed in itself.” Ng received no funds from the redevelopment agency.

Councilman Dave Aiazzi noted that Ng and other developers have sunk millions into downtown Reno over the years. Between 1987 and January 2001, the Redevelopment Agency spent $78 million on downtown. During this same period of time, private investment totaled $601 million.

While it’s hard to conclusively say that the agency’s investment directly led to the private sector investment, it’s even harder to say where downtown Reno might have been without it.

"Barney Ng, the Caranos—they told us they [invested money in development] because of redevelopment," Aiazzi said. "How do you dispute that?"