It appears almost inevitable that Redevelopment Agencies will be axed in California: Proposition 22 presents a “problematic” hiccup in proceedings but is unlikely to prevent their outright abolition. But what does this mean for the future of our cities? It won’t mark the end of growth, but it could change the face of development. Whether this change is welcome could depend on how active a community becomes in attracting external investment. This will require us all to think differently about how development occurs, and to take greater responsibility for how it is delivered.
Redevelopment presents one of the best opportunities to effect positive, sustainable, change in a neighborhood, provided that it is delivered as intended and for the benefit of the existing community and its future inhabitants. The Redevelopment Agencies (RDAs) are responsible for identifying and designating development areas, to create better urban living conditions through the removal of blight. Redevelopment provides a mechanism for the clean up of contaminated land, which might otherwise lay neglected. The RDAs achieve this by investing public funds in infrastructure with wider community benefits, and use these linked investment opportunities to attract private developer partners. Critically, in San Francisco, the RDA has been the largest local provider of funding for affordable housing in the City. It has also played a vital role in facilitating local citizen participation in the planning and design process. What, then, happens to the social fabric of our cities when the RDAs are scrapped?
Governor Brown’s proposed concession to the RDA axe is to allow cities to partially fund redevelopment by raising taxes with the approval of 55 percent of voters, rather than two-thirds currently. This places the onus back on the people to fund the redevelopment they collectively want to go ahead. As a mechanism, this can only respond effectively to current needs. It will prove much more challenging for it to successfully support development intended to benefit those presently excluded from the local community, such as affordable housing or wider infrastructure interventions.
California is not alone here. Last summer, the UK government abolished its Regional Development Agencies presenting a similar crisis for affordable housing. In place of RDAs the UK proposed a Localism Bill, intended to give more power to the people: Local communities will decide what they need in terms of public services and vote on where certain ringmarked funds are spent. It is not yet clear how much authority the government will devolve to community responsibility, but if it succeeds in motivating the Brits to more active citizen engagement, it will positively invert the current status quo.
In San Francisco, the localist agenda is alive, active and flourishing. There is little need for a Bill here to inspire people off their sofas into the political and public domain. A citizen-based Redevelopment Agency operating on an independent and not-for-profit basis could be established without anyone batting an eyelid. But it could do with more ‘teeth’. It would need accountability and it would need government recognition. Perhaps this is worth lobbying for? In the absence of RDAs cities will have to work harder to attract developers to the preferred areas by creating noteworthy investment opportunities. This is something that commercial business understands implicitly. A citizen-based agency could reduce the red tape, and provide accountability through local business-based advice and peer reviews, drawing upon the Bay Area’s notable experience in social enterprise.
The US Regional Development Agencies have, by their own admission, had mixed success at delivering neighborhood gems that bring social, economic and environmental benefits to all and not at the expense of minorities. It is not an easy task to negotiate individual interests to find a resolution that suits all, but this is the role of good governance. At the same time, the RDAs may well be outdated for this purpose. Karen Chappell described RDAs as “dinosaurs” at the recent SPUR and Bay Citizen Debate on the Future of Redevelopment, and argued that there may be other mechanisms that could be used more effectively to deliver similar benefits. The removal of the RDAs could present a huge void in the delivery of sustainable development as we know it, but alternatively this could be viewed as an opportunity to learn from their past successes and failures, to rethink redevelopment and improve upon it.