Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Redevelopment, CEQA reform are intertwined issues for 2014

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Seemingly, devising a replacement for redevelopment and overhauling the California Environmental Quality Act are two discrete legislative issues.

They are, however, intertwined in that both were legislative agenda items that didn’t bear fruit in 2013 and thus will be back in 2014, and that both potentially will impact how California evolves economically as it emerges from the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Indeed, one conceptual proposal from the Urban Land Institute, unveiled recently, makes the connection explicit. It calls on the Legislature to revive redevelopment, abolished two years ago for fiscal reasons, to give cities more tools to improve housing and local economies, and includes a narrow CEQA reform as one element of that proposed revival.

Redevelopment died because it had alienated both liberals and conservatives – the former because it had evolved into crony capitalism and siphoned off tax money from other public purposes, and the latter because it had become arrogant in dealing with landowners and small business.

So the first question is whether, as the Urban Land Institute contends, some form of redevelopment is legitimately needed to clean up urban blight, foster business investment through infrastructure improvement, and improve housing for the poor.

Were it limited to those purposes, perhaps so. But local officials have often ignored past attempts by the Legislature to impose discipline on redevelopment schemes when rent-seeking developers filled their heads with grandiose notions, incurring many billions of dollars in public debt to subsidize dicey projects.

Bankrupt Stockton is a monument to what happens when politicians and developers try to ignore the laws of economics and pour public funds into what are – or should be – essentially private projects. And it isn’t the only one. Fresno, for instance, is being weighed down by a baseball park.

The Urban Land Institute says that redevelopment revival should include regulatory streamlining for infill and transit-oriented projects, which ties it to CEQA reform.

Actually, a CEQA bill aimed specifically at fast-tracking a new basketball arena in Sacramento, carried by the city’s own legislator, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, contained some of those elements as a political sweetener.

But, one wonders, if streamlining CEQA’s provisions for projects that meet some standard of political correctness – or political pull – is justified, why shouldn’t it apply to more traditional forms of development, especially those that create badly needed new jobs?

Confining CEQA “reform” to certain kinds of politically favored projects – such as a new basketball palace in Sacramento or a football stadium in Los Angeles – is just another form of crony capitalism.