The Death of Redevelopment Agencies

by Randy Shaw on January 4, 2012

In the last week of 2011, the California Supreme Court upheld state legislation dissolving Redevelopment Agencies (RDA’s). The court also struck down a companion measure allowing RDA’s to survive by paying additional fees. In a cruel irony, the rulings came in a lawsuit filed not by RDA opponents, but by the California Redevelopment Association (CRA). Why did the CRA not accept the Governor and Legislature’s compromise plan? Because RDA’s never compromise. For sixty years they used their vast authority to trample over dissent, demonstrating a greed, arrogance, and contempt for the public that has no place in a democratic society. As affordable housing advocates mourn the loss of their chief funding source, we should not forget that no state agency since 1949 has displaced more low-income people and demolished more working-class neighborhoods. On the whole, San Francisco would have been better off today without it.

As I first wrote on January 13, 2011, the state RDA’s chose to declare a war against Governor Brown that lacked public support and that they could not win. The war ended last week with the California Supreme Court shutting down the over 400 Redevelopment Agencies in the state. Cities are hoping for a legislative fix that keeps RDA’s alive in some form, but with tax increase measures set for November there is little chance that legislators will deepen the budget hole by helping a constituency that has bashed them at every turn.

For sixty years, RDA’s multi-billion dollar public relations machine – funded entirely by taxpayers – has promoted deceptive stories trumpeting their effectiveness. Let’s check the record in San Francisco to see how the city was impacted by Redevelopment.

Displacement and Demolition: The Fillmore and SOMA

Defenders of San Francisco’s RDA are quick to acknowledge that the demolition and displacement of the city’s most prominent African-American community was little more than “Negro Removal.” But what is less acknowledged is that the Fillmore is a far less vibrant community today than it would have been had it never become a Redevelopment Area.

The pre-Redevelopment Fillmore had great historic buildings, a thriving street life, and an energy that hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars spent by the RDA has not restored. The old Fillmore had a history that was visible on every block; the current Fillmore is a generic neighborhood filled with national chain stores, nondescript new construction and a pocket of jazz-related venues that remind us of how much has been lost. Fillmore Street becomes far more invigorating as it heads north away from the RDA’s former control.

SOMA (and I refer to the area east of Fourth Street) might strike many as a closer case, as people point to the two Moscone Convention Centers and the many museums around 3rd and Mission. Yet let’s not forget that there was an alternative plan that would have created just as much convention space as the original Moscone by combining the legendary Fox Theater on Market with the then Brooks Hall in Civic Center (instead, the Fox was demolished in 1957, with many believing it was to ensure that there would be no viable alternative to Ben Swig’s plans for a convention center in SOMA).

Had Civic Center hosted the Convention Center, the Civic Center Plaza would have been revitalized decades ago. Rather than drawing few people on weekdays and becoming close to desolate on weekends, it would have the potential of being San Francisco’s Bryant Park.

And most importantly, absent SOMA Redevelopment thousands of low-income tenants would not have been ousted from their homes, thousands of low-cost housing units would not have been demolished, and hundreds of historic Victorians in SOMA would have been preserved.

The area around Moscone is quiet and sterile at night, and while Yerba Buena Gardens is great, without the RDA there would have been parks in a SOMA that had been allowed to develop organically. Absent Redevelopment, this part of SOMA would likely resemble today’s Mission District, as it had a similar housing stock and nucleus of bars, restaurants, and retail businesses.

In light of the staggering human costs of SOMA Redevelopment, the city would have been better without it.

Golden Gateway

Widely viewed as an unequivocal RDA success, the creation of upscale developments in a previously rundown location clearly benefited the city’s tax base. Market forces would likely have produced similar developments, but much later.

Mission Bay

This is where RDA’s work: taking a land base needing significant infrastructure improvements and then having these public-funded upgrades leverage new private development. Mission Bay would likely still be undeveloped but for the RDA.

Treasure Island

This has parallels to Mission Bay, but too soon to assess whether private investment would have occurred in absence of RDA money.

Bayview-Hunters Point

This is a large area where most of the RDA’s impact is yet to be felt. RDA proponents were convinced that public investment was needed to jumpstart the area’s housing market. Yet Bayview-Hunters Point may have the city’s largest supply of unsold housing, raising questions as to why public subsidies should be used to encourage further construction.

At this stage, it is too soon to know whether this neighborhood will ultimately benefit from Redevelopment.

Sixth Street

I would deem Sixth Street Redevelopment a staggeringly poor use of scarce public funds. The question we should ask is what RDA spending of $200 million – money that could have gone to other public needs – in the area has accomplished.

Is Sixth Street safer or more desirable to walk down than it was when the RDA’s efforts on Sixth Street began? The answer is no, and I was there.

Sure, the street has benefited from RDA-funded physical improvements. But these could have been made without the neighborhood becoming a Project Area. And the most necessary improvement – the elimination of a lane to reduce high-speed traffic and the installation of a green median strip as along Upper Market – was not made.

Many point to all of the affordable housing that the RDA built on Sixth Street. But while it’s always good to expand low-cost housing, much of this money has curiously gone to 6th and Howard, when the greatest level of problems are on the first block of Sixth off Market.

The RDA was not needed to maintain Sixth Street as a low-income community – its proliferation of SRO’s and lack of ownership opportunities ensured this. But what the RDA could have done and failed to do was prevent Sixth Street from becoming a poor-person’s ghetto surrounded by luxury hotels and upscale housing – a result the RDA actually facilitated.

Sixth Street is a tragedy of missed opportunities and money unwisely spent. The RDA has done a much better job on Sixth since Fred Blackwell arrived (which continues since his departure), but it its not at all clear what the RDA “redeveloped” for the $200 million it has spent in the area.


When Mid-Market was being considered as a Redevelopment Area from the late 1990’s through 2005, the neighborhood floundered. Its recovery has been energized by tax incentive policies that have nothing to do with Redevelopment.

Despite this factual history, media accounts continue to discuss a fictional and non-existent Mid-Market Redevelopment area.

The Mission, Noe Valley, Haight, Marina, Upper Fillmore etc

These are all great neighborhoods. And what they all have in common, as does North Beach, the Inner Sunset, Potrero Hill, and the Inner Richmond among others, is that they are desirable, energetic and thriving communities without coming under the control of the RDA.

These communities all have a street-level vitality and desirability lacking in RDA neighborhoods. They provide the best refutation to those who believe that a city with the riches of San Francisco ever needed a Redevelopment Agency to prosper.

Health, Schools, Parks, Public Services

One cannot measure the positive achievements of the RDA without noting that they came through the diversion of billions of taxpayer dollars from other public purposes. We do not know how many would have benefited from these diverted funds, but we do know that these public dollars were allocated not by elected officials but rather by unelected and unaccountable political appointees.

Its remarkable that such an undemocratic allocation of public resources continued for sixty years. Fortunately, Governor Brown and the state legislature – backed particularly by school groups – understood that RDA’s benefits come at a heavy price to all other public services, as well as to our system of democracy.

Randy Shaw helped keep Redevelopment out of Mid-Market and the Tenderloin. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.


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