Bringing Residents into Redevelopment

Redevelopment challenges in Oakland

The California Redevelopment Act of 1945 created a mechanism for local governments to revive poor neighborhoods. But early redevelopment efforts rarely considered the needs of the people living in areas that had been designated “blighted.” These top-down projects could take a heavy toll: residents lost their homes and businesses without adequate compensation, and vibrant communities were destroyed in the name of urban renewal. Most were home to people of color, prompting accusations of racism and exacerbating residents’ mistrust of government. 

Although some residents did protest against redevelopment projects in the 1950s and early 1960s, community groups began to push back more widely in the late 1960s. In San Francisco’s historically African-American Fillmore District, the site of one of the largest redevelopment projects in the nation’s history, residents sued to stop the local redevelopment agency from using eminent domain to take people’s homes.

Their efforts led to a federal law requiring adequate compensation and relocation assistance for displaced residents. This victory spurred more campaigns against redevelopment projects across California, particularly those that involved taking private property through eminent domain. 

The development of PACs

In 1972, California redevelopment law was changed to require more input from local residents. Now, when redevelopment agencies work in neighborhoods with many low- income residents, they must form a project area committee (PAC) before using eminent domain. PACs are elected groups of residents, business owners, and representatives of community organizations. They review plans, suggest ideas, and ensure that redevelopment projects reflect the community’s needs, but they do not have the power to stop projects outright.

When eminent domain is not involved, the redevelopment agency appoints a citizens’ advisory committee (CAC). Because CACs only make recommendations to redevelopment agencies, they have less influence than PACs. In addition to sitting on these formal councils, residents have other opportunities to get involved. In some cities, community members have formed informal advisory groups to articulate neighborhood priorities and weigh in on the redevelopment process. Citizens can also attend public hearings, which are required at several points as a redevelopment plan is created.

Public involvement varies widely

Currently, most California cities and half of its counties have established redevelopment areas. The extent of public involvement varies widely, however. In some cities, the relationship between community members and redevelopment agencies is characterized by acrimony and mistrust. In West Oakland, for example, longtime resident and West Oakland Project Area Committee (WOPAC) member Bruce Beasley considers it his duty to be skeptical of redevelopment projects. “If the relationship between WOPAC and the redevelopment agency isn’t contentious, we’re not doing our job,” he says.

Although redevelopment agencies are required to form PACs and CACs, the most effective agencies go far beyond this requirement by creating avenues for deeper citizen involvement and providing the tools residents need to influence the process. San Jose’s Redevelopment Agency employs community organizers as part of its Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, and gathers public input at almost every step of its planning process. Neighborhood coalitions there work closely with the redevelopment agency to complete a wide range of projects.

The level of community involvement in San Jose is unusual, but it suggests alternatives to what West Oakland resident and WOPAC member Margaret Gordon calls the “our way or the highway” attitude many redevelopment agencies have historically taken.

For her, the memory of the destruction of the Fillmore District still looms large. “The whole community just vanished,” she recalls. “If you’re going to be able to transcend that, to have transparency and accountability, these are the new tools that need to be brought to the table.”

This is part of our 2010 podcast series, Rebuilding Healthier Neighborhoods.