Redevelop this, California!

How California will redevelop its existing communities in the future is up for debate. And, it’s about time.

The role of redevelopment in shaping our built environment came to its crescendo in the halcyon days of 2005 over Kelo vs. New London. Today, Susette Kelo’s home sits as a vacant scar on business-as-usual redevelopment practices.

Born from the sins of blight eradication through Urban Renewal, redevelopment’s application of Corbu’s mechanical tower-in-a-park utopia led to the rise of Jane Jacobs and the re-humanization of city living. A seemingly positive turn of events, and yet this pendulum swing of community influence, taken to its less positive extreme, has bred a culture of increased NIMBY vigilante justice that’s questioned not only redevelopment, but every urban planning move in recent years.

California’s Proposition 13 initiative was passed in 1979 and led everyone to believe you can have something for nothing. Property taxes were fixed at 1% while costs for city services continued to rise, leaving redevelopment as the only tool for increasing property tax revenues in local communities. Meanwhile, everything else was on its way to Sacramento to be lost in a bloated bureaucracy.

Redevelopment has been a double edged sword for the City of San Diego. An easy target of public demagoguery when successful, such as in downtown’s Gaslamp District or City Heights neighborhoods, it’s criticized as a back room deal tool for private developers to be handed public money. On the other hand, where deemed a failure, it’s portrayed as a coarse tool wantonly scarring communities with projects either out-of-scale or out-of-character.

Where Are We Now?
Despite New Urbanism providing better context-sensitive tools, such as our transect and place-based designs and codes, redevelopment is still a relatively crude tool, mostly leveraging a community’s ability to assemble private property into master planned chunks, increase the land’s value, and bond against the value to get buildings built. However, by being private property-centric, all new redevelopment puts pressure (and thereby angst) on surrounding properties to upgrade to the new standard, intensity or height only initially achieved through subsidy. 

A conundrum wrapped in an enigma. The use of government to condemn private property in order to raise property values (and taxes) has aligned mostly pro-business property rights advocates and taxpayer associations against redevelopment. Yet, with insufficient property tax funding to keep the lights on, redevelopment has been seen as a positive source of community building until recently. In fact, because of its success in bringing people back to cities, blight is now as difficult to define as “rural community character” and the role of the government in improving property values through stimulating infill development in what were formally unloved urban areas is in question.

The nation has been trending towards living in urban areas over the past decade. New Urbanism is old hack, and the days of assembling an entire block of private property are over. What will we do now? I suggest keeping your eye on San Diego.

America’s Finest City
Why San Diego? The city has a tremendous history of changing our nation’s built environment in both good and bad ways. The first Mission built in the late 1700’s. In 1915, Bertram Goodhue’s reinterpretation of Spanish Baroque and Spanish Colonial architecture ‘invented’ a new architecture style that defined Southern California and led to the Art Deco movement that swept across our nation. During our 1935 International Exposition, the Federal Housing Authority unveiled Richard Neutra and Garrett Eckbo’s vision of socialist housing subsidized by the FHA’s mortgage insurance, which inadvertently led to the suburban sprawl we have finally neutralized 60-years later. Despite that one little screw up, San Diego notably re-introduced compact, mixed-use, and economically successful infill development with Michael Stepner’s Uptown District, which still wins national awards to this day.

So, assuming redevelopment funding is gone and we lose the ability to leverage private parcels into great higher tax brackets, where will be find new land to develop and revitalize?  In San Diego, the new land is right in front of us.  Our street sections are, on average, 80-feet wide throughout the city. Add mandatory 20-foot setbacks on both sides, minimum. Therefore, at any given section we have 120-feet of right-of-way (ROW) in four directions, with squat corner buildings vying with billboards, street trees, signage, lights and power lines for your undivided attention.

The Four-Corners idea was developed by Leon Krier during his stay in San Diego last year. Combining this idea with Leon’s Architectural Tuning of Settlements, we developed 16 distinctive character types of town and neighborhood centers to reconfigure mostly within the ROW (click for larger view):

By ‘wiggling’ the street at appropriately located street corners, a variety of things occur simultaneously to increase property values:  

1) Appropriate areas to revitalize valuable centers are usually located in the highly sought-after older Traditional Neighborhoods. The bones are already in place, infrastructure is sized to increase intensities and, urbanistically-speaking, they usually are in need of additional civic space and sidewalk/streetscape improvements. Suburban-sprawl retrofit is possible too, but I am concerned about their lack of lovability and infrastructure (streets and pipes) built for one intensity, thereby being less sought-after and more expensive to retrofit.

Existing US Condition



2) Civic spaces work well with civic buildings. Adding new civic buildings and spaces needs to be well-designed. Foreground buildings (Civic) in relationship to existing private buildings, oriented by the urban pattern (new and old), create a distinctive character.

3) Terminating Vistas create retail value, just like JC Penny’s at the Mall. Adjusting streets to ‘see’ the new retail frontages, and parking spaces, creates greater value than only seeing signage for shops while driving through at 45 MPH.

4) Slowing Down Traffic helps you see the place. The architecture is more important because it is seen. The retail is seen, the parking is seen, the people enjoying themselves are seen. Slowing down traffic at key Neighborhood Centers allows for walkability, outdoor dining, and increased retail sales. Note the difference in business along Bird Rock’s La Jolla Boulevard after the street improvements calmed the traffic greatly.

5) But, I want to drive fast! Not every street on every corner is appropriate for the cross-roads infill design. And the corner of two ‘A’ Streets creates a different design approach than an ‘A’ and ‘B’ Street corner or two ‘B’ Street corners. This has been the only criticism of the concept as people want to drive suburban speeds across our urban neighborhoods. Just as women used to be discouraged from riding bikes, it’s possible our car culture can be discouraged from driving over 35 MPH through every neighborhood, and slow down to spend a little time and a little money in terrific neighborhood centers.

6) Condemnation isn’t necessary. With the city adding land (ROW and setbacks), that adds value to a developer pioneering a new development model. Wiggling the roads create a destination in our monotonous grid, adding value to a few key areas without ‘taking’ private property and creating unrealistic development intensities. 

Importantly, street improvements are financed by a city’s General Funds, State Transit Funding (1/3 sales tax), and Federal Gas Taxes. Smart Growth funding and the recently increased Federal/State dedication to infill development is reshaping our redevelopment future.  

–Howard Blackson


Filed under Architecture, Development, Legal, Planning and Design

7 responses to “Redevelop this, California!

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  2. michael church

    Oh dear. I’m conflicted. I worked as a redevelopment director for over a decade, so I have a rather more positive attitude about redevelopment, at least as practiced where I worked in California. Saying that all redevelopment is bad — distorts the market, whatever — is rather like saying that all architects are great designers and understand space. The private market has abandoned virtually all the downtowns in the USA and built new, further and further out. There are local governments that have been sensitive to urbanism and have used redevelopment powers creatively. There is a vital role for local governments in fostering and promoting urbanism, and redevelopment is, or was, a powerful tool for accomplishing this. It’s a shame that Gov. Brown’s budget eliminates all that remains of redevelopment.

  3. A point I’m arguing is that the role of redevelopment has changed. The great work to refocus people towards downtowns and redevelopment areas did its job successfully (as it sounds you did, Michael). So, now what? What is the nature of redevelopment in the future? It appears that Governor Brown has answered that question without debate and would put an end to it. Here is another point of view, that I tentatively share:
    However, if redevelopment is gone, above is my recommendation to fill the need. What are yours?

  4. We applaud the authors’ argument to change the way we use the “crude” tool of redevelopment. However, the debate cannot be limited to eminent domain when we debate the future of redevelopment agencies in California. There are two significant issues that are missed in this writing: One, that for all practical purposes, most city councils in this state do not use their power of eminent domain. Kelo has effectively eliminated the political will to assemble land via redevelopment agency (RDA) action. So one can’t effectively argue that the wind down is predominantly related to the elimination of agencies. Two, and most importantly, the Governors’ elimination of redevelopment entirely destroys the critical mechanism for affordable housing production in California (the other article you reference, and that you agree with, argues this, yet provides no solution to the issue). Let’s be honest, we have some of the most expensive housing in the nation. Are we really in a position to eliminate a badly needed source of funds for affordable housing? Oh, please don’t tell me cities will step in to solve their own housing problems; most cities barely tolerate affordable housing generally. With a few exceptions, most cities just wish the requirement to supply affordable housing would go away. Finally, the private market does not invest affordable housing without a financial incentive to do so. The supply of housing funds from agencies is one of the main sources of that financial incentive. Your article does nothing to provide for a solution to this issue, beyond some nice drawings of street corners. The bottom line: eliminating agencies would eliminate the most important source of affordable housing money in the history of the state of California. We do not have the luxury as a state, to lose additional jobs to areas that have less expensive housing, nor to states that more heavily believe in the idea of financial support of affordable housing. Without this supply of redevelopment agency housing setaside funds, the affordable housing industry and the housing they provide will be set back decades in California.

  5. Scott,
    I think you misunderstood my intent, which is easy to do if I’m writing. Keeping redevelopment is a fine idea, but, if folded in a matter of days (see:, what would you propose the state/locals do in response? I gave mine, nice street corners, and ask again, and ask what are yours? It is too bad that Governor Brown didn’t allow for a dialog and just proposed an all-or-nothing, short-term fiscal decision. However, to fight for status quo in today’s economic/social environment is to tilt at windmills.

    To continue to prod, I think the great recession has temporarily solved for our housing crisis and set our nation back probably 5 or 6 decades. California has gone through a housing black hole where very few can afford what they have today. Maybe now we have the time to build a better mouse trap to keep tax money in cities and build affordable housing. In my opinion, expressed above, redevelopment is/was on the ropes anyway and in need of an overhaul before Gov. Brown decided to pull the plug.

    Therefore, I look forward to the dialog and thank you for taking the time to read and reply.

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  7. Now that The Supreme Court Pulled The Plug on Redevelopment how do you feel now?

    I as a victim of redevelopment I am not made whole but vindicated that the monster is dead and hope that it is not like Dracula that we must fear it will rise from the dead to suck the life out of the rest of the California economy.

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