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Board members mourn ending of Santa Rosa's redevelopment agency


Like a terminally ill patient preparing for the inevitable, Santa Rosa's redevelopment agency finished getting its affairs in order Monday.

The governing board of the 54-year-old agency, responsible for everything from fighting blight to funding downtown bicycle races, held what was almost certain its final meeting before its Feb. 1 dissolution.

"I think it's a real sad day for this community and other communities up and down the state of California," said board member Steve Burke, the city's former director of redevelopment and housing.

The final meeting of an agency whose operations were not well understood by the general public was, not surprisingly, sparsely attended. Board members were joined by a handful of staffers, one member of the media and a single member of the public, an affordable housing advocate named Gregory Fearon, who did not speak.

Danielle O'Leary, the city's economic development director, said she was disappointed not to see any signs of support from the public.

"Given the magnitude of how those programs touch people, it was kind of hard not to see any champions in the audience," O'Leary said.

The fact that the public doesn't appear to be mourning the loss of local redevelopment shows they are largely unaware of its accomplishments, said Frank Kasimov, city redevelopment specialist.

"I think it's probably indicative that people really don't know all the things that redevelopment does for a community, for the local economy, for jobs and affordable housing," Kasimov said.

Advocates of the state's 400 active redevelopment agencies say the tax revenue they generate and bonds they sell give local communities a vital tool to clean up blighted areas, create jobs and build affordable housing. Critics have labeled them as wasteful, lacking transparency and a threat to private property rights.

Gov. Jerry Brown estimates that if redevelopment agencies disappeared, local property taxes they feed on could flow instead to schools and other agencies, saving the state about $1 billion in education payments this year.

It is hard to explain the myriad consequences of the loss of redevelopment, but eventually it will become clear, Burke said.

"I think it's really something that people won't know or won't miss until it's gone," he said.

Without redevelopment, downtown Santa Rosa couldn't have been rebuilt as it was after the 1969 earthquake, Burke said. Without redevelopment a group of vacant, contaminated parcels along Santa Rosa Creek in Railroad Square couldn't have been cleaned up to one day become the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel and Spa, he said.

The land that hotel now sits on is now one of the agency's key assets. The other is the former AT&T building downtown, which is under contract to be sold to developer Hugh Futrell by the end of June.

Transferring those two pieces of real estate to the city was one of the housecleaning items the agency needed to do in its final meeting.

In a related move, the agency also formalized a change to an easement allowing future residents of the Museum on the Square project to access the former AT&T building through the city's transit mall.

These actions were aimed at clarifying existing agreements before Feb.1, when the city will become responsible for fulfilling the agency's $10 million in required payments through June. An "oversight board" and the state will be looking over its shoulder.

Board member Helga Lemke asked what's to stop the oversight board from selling that real estate to raise money.

Kasimov noted the AT&T building is in escrow, so that deal would have to be honored.

But Assistant City Attorney Mike Casey said there is so much uncertainty about the future that it was hard to say anything definitive.

"There direct answer to your question is we're not really sure," Casey said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.