Transcript of Redevelopment

This page provides more information about opportunities for partnering with public health in redevelopment profiled in our 2010 podcast series, Rebuilding Healthier Neighborhoods.

I'm Robert Ogilvie, director of Planning for Healthy Places, a project of Public Health Law & Policy. In this podcast, I will discuss the role of redevelopment agencies in creating healthy communities. And I'm going to focus on three particular issues. The first is the assets that redevelopment agencies have, the second is the challenges and limitations that redevelopment agencies face as they try to create healthy communities, and the third is really about how redevelopment agency staff can work to build healthier environments. 

So redevelopment agencies have certain assets that other public agencies don't have. They have got eminent domain power to acquire land for public purpose; the ability to collect tax increment and to sell their own redevelopment bonds to help finance their operations; and they can use that money to pay for physical improvements, to assemble land, to provide incentives for developers, to build affordable, and mixed-income housing, and to build infrastructure. And that's really important when it comes to public health.

Traditionally, infrastructure has been thought of as freeway off-ramps for big box retailers, or widening roads, or putting in sewers and improving lighting and those sorts of things. And redevelopment agencies continue to do that. But from the public health perspective, infrastructure can include sidewalks, bike paths, complete streets, transit access. I know in San Jose the redevelopment agency has been very important in bringing the light rail downtown. And all of those are the sorts of infrastructure improvements that redevelopment agencies can make to help improve public health. 

The incentive packages that they can bring to lure new businesses or to create incentives for existing businesses to act in a way that's amenable to public health is also really important. This is how redevelopment agencies often get health food retailers into locations. These incentives are the financial incentives, which can come from the tax increment and the redevelopment bonds. Also the redevelopment agencies have access to other sorts of funding, so many redevelopment agencies will use community development block grants and a variety of federal tax credits: low-income housing tax credits for low-income housing or new market tax credits to try and incentivize the location of businesses within a redevelopment area. So all of these are  assets that redevelopment agencies can bring as they try to do their work in a redevelopment area.

Now, at the same time they face challenges. There are challenges that come from the public, there are challenges that come from the state level, and in California those challenges right now are particularly acute. And that actually creates an opening for public health. redevelopment agencies are not very popular, so that's the first challenge and I would say the overwhelming challenge that redevelopment agencies face. When redevelopment first started in the 1950s, it was more commonly referred to as "urban renewal." Others referred to that as "Negro removal." In San Francisco, the Fillmore district became infamous. And in Bayview Hunters Point, although they didn't clear to the extent that they did in the Fillmore, there's a real sort of negative legacy of the way the redevelopment agency has acted and the relationships they have with the community at times are quite hostile. And that has sort created a sort of created what I would say is a sort of an in-built hurdle that redevelopment agencies have to overcome as they try to get their work done. That's something that public health people need to be aware of, and as public health people think about allying with redevelopment agencies, they need to know how their potential allies in the community think and feel about redevelopment.

Earlier on, when I was talking about assets, I talked about the ability to collect tax increment. That actually poses a challenge. In a lot of people's minds, the main job of a redevelopment agency is to strengthen the local tax base. And that has come to be one of the main ways that the success or failure of redevelopment projects in California is judged. And because of that, redevelopment agencies often feel a real strong need, real strong impetus, to do a certain type of development. They often feel the push to approve projects — big box retail, for example — that will bring in the maximum amount of sales tax and property tax, increase revenue. And those might not necessarily be the types of developments that will have the best public health impact. It's a real challenge for redevelopment and it's a real challenge for healthy redevelopment. And it's something that public health need advocates need to be aware of.

The third issue I really want to talk about is how redevelopment agency staff can work to promote public health. And I want touch on a couple of things. The first of them is community participation, really investing in community participation. We have certain community participation requirements in state redevelopment law, but I think there's a lot of potential for us to go way, way, way beyond that, and certainly the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative in San Jose points in the direction in how far we can go. Ensuring that there's strong community input, that community opinion is solicited in determining neighborhood priorities, I think can really go a long way to helping redevelopment agencies develop the types of plans that will garner strong public support and that will therefore more likely be built and thrive over the long run. So I think it's important for agencies to invest in community participation. 

I think it's also important for redevelopment agency staff to really explicitly make health impacts a central part of the planning and prioritization phases. So an example of what I'm talking about is when a potential development is being proposed, a health impact assessment could be done. So for example, if a mixed-use development is being proposed, the redevelopment agency could then look at the proximity to a highway and think about, you know, what sort of air will the people who live in this place be breathing and then what impact will that have on their health. They could look at the park density in the redevelopment area and think about how close are the new developments that might get built here to parks, and therefore how likely would it be that people would actually to use them. How well connected are the streets, therefore how likely are they to be a walkable neighborhood. These are some of the sorts of things that I'm talking about. 

And in doing this, redevelopment agencies actually can coordinate with other organizations and use data that's being collected by public health as part of the public health impact assessment. One example of what I'm talking about is the way that the San Jose redevelopment agency used data from the Santa Clara County Public Health Department to influence decisions that the VTA — which is the Transportation Authority in San Jose — was going to make about planned service reductions on some of their routes. The public health department through their data knew where the disabled children adults and seniors lived. The redevelopment agency took that data and mapped it against the service map of the VTA and they were then able to go to the VTA and show them which routes the disabled primarily depended and helped the VTA plan their cuts so that the routes the disabled were dependent on would be spared cuts. So that's a real health benefit right there. 

You know, it's more than just freeway off-ramps and it's more than just big box retail to enhance the fiscal bottom line. Redevelopment law in California is part of the state Health and Safety Code and the initial impetus for redevelopment was in large part to create healthier environments. The fiscal health of the cities in which redevelopment agencies operate has often trumped the public health. But increasingly, as these chronic disease epidemics have become more acute in American cities, the issue of the public health is again rising to prominence and I think there's a lot redevelopment agencies can do to help build environments in which public health outcomes will improve.

For Planning for Healthy Places, I'm Robert Ogilvie. For more other podcasts in this series and for more information about redevelopment and public health, visit