Redevelopment bites

Last week, the Mayors’ Institute on City Design—a Washington, D.C.-based group of urban design experts—swung through Sacramento and offered a critique of our deeply dysfunctional downtown, in particular the J-K-L corridor.

A lot of what the MICD had to say at its brief presentation at City Hall last week was familiar to anyone who’s followed downtown development.

For one, K Street isn’t really a street anymore, malled up and cut off by Downtown Plaza and the Sacramento Convention Center. Downtown Plaza itself is a Death Star, a gloomy fortress at war with the neighborhood outside.

(In fact, Bites has been talking about getting rid of Downtown Plaza for years now. See “Blow up the mall” by Cosmo Garvin; September 20, 2007. Also check out to see what other towns are doing with their abandoned, and might-as-well-be abandoned, shopping centers.)

Unfortunately, the MICD panel ignored the one factor that mucked up downtown in the first place: redevelopment.

Mayors up and down the state are pitching a collective hissy fit because Gov. Jerry Brown wants to take away their power to divert taxes into redevelopment agencies.

The upside is that it will mean an end to bizarre experiments like K Street, where for decades millions of dollars in public money have been spent trying out the latest gimmicks. Banning cars, building suburban-style shopping malls, creating a heavily subsidized entertainment district, complete with an underperforming IMAX theater and a mermaid bar.

What did a once perfectly good urban thoroughfare like K Street ever do to deserve such shabby treatment?

Along with the many physical perversions of K Street came the social and political perversions. What was the point of banning street musicians from K Street? Is there not something a bit corrosive about using tax dollars and the power of eminent domain to force “undesirable” businesses like restaurants, record stores and clothing shops to relocate?

Did we really need to spend millions to relocate light-rail stations—and light-rail riders, some of whom are homeless, or young and rowdy, or drunk, or all of the above—away from the sight lines of property owned by certain favored developers? Oh, and how did that whole Z Gallerie thing work out, anyway?

And why does it seem like, inside the redevelopment zone, nobody does anything positive without a fat government handout?

The city lionizes downtown super developer David Taylor, who has made his career parlaying public funds into impressive, but often sterile, commercial projects. At the same time it demonizes downtown landlord Moe Mohanna, because he was smart enough to buy up property in the downtown redevelopment zone and then, when the city decided it wanted his land, to demand a high price for it. But both men are products of the same distorted system.

Of course, it should be noted that SN&R’s Del Paso Boulevard mother ship was paid for with a loan from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency.

And Bites is no Libertarian. Twenty percent of redevelopment money now collected by local agencies like SHRA by law has to be used to produce much-needed affordable housing in our communities. That part of the governor’s plan will actually hurt real people.

But if Mayor Kevin Johnson and the other “Big Ten” city mayors are going to go to the mat for redevelopment, it would be nice if they put extra focus on saving the affordable-housing money, and less on saving the mermaid bars.

Perhaps, with some serious reforms, redevelopment could be made to work better. As it stands now, Bites will only be 20 percent sad to see it go.