Legal Challenge Looms Over San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative
In June 2002, the San Jose City Council enacted the “Strong Neighborhoods Initiative,” a massive redevelopment plan aimed at increasing retail development throughout the city. The plan includes 20 different neighborhoods, spread out over an area encompassing 180 square miles, including one-tenth of the city’s geographic area and one-third of its population. Under the Initiative, the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, armed with the power of eminent domain, can condemn any property in the redevelopment area and hand it over to private developers. The City will spend an astounding $120 million to buy or condemn properties, build infrastructure, and renovate supposedly dilapidated buildings.1 The plan has the potential to affect 300,000 residents.2
Many local activists have opposed the blight designation or at least the inclusion of eminent domain in the project, forming citizen groups and speaking out against the project.3 The Burbank neighborhood submitted a petition with 700 signatures asking to be let out of the plan area, but the City Council included them anyway.4 Residents of the Naglee Park area also voted to be taken out of the plan, but that may or may not happen sometime in 2003.5 Eminent domain was the sticking point, and the City added supposed safeguards, like using eminent domain as a “last resort,” but that’s a meaningless protection. All it means is that someone will try to buy the property before condemnation proceedings start. The City could have chosen not to authorize eminent domain, thus alleviating everyone’s fears. They authorized it.
One San Jose property owner within the supposedly blighted area has taken the City to court. Elaine Evans, who owns two buildings and a vacant lot in downtown San Jose, filed a lawsuit on August 21, 2002 to invalidate the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative. Although she has no problem with the City working to redevelop troubled areas in the city; she objects to the City’s use of flimsy criteria to reach a blight determination affecting properties like hers that are in no way substandard. Under the state’s Community Redevelopment Law, for an area to be blighted, problems must be “so prevalent and substantial” that they cannot be remedied by private business or regular government workings.6 According to Evans’ lawyer, “there are very specific findings that have to be made [to call an area blighted]. The redevelopment agency didn’t even come close.”7 Evans’ suit identifies a number of problems with the blight designation, including the fact that the City failed to identify a single building that was actually unsafe or unfit for habitation, and the City used conditions like overgrown yards and broken sidewalks to label an area blighted. She also questions the notion that the area is economically stagnant when property values have increased 30 percent since 1996.8
This challenge to the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative is still in its early stages. However, based on recent successful challenges to similar redevelopment laws in Mammoth Lakes and Upland, in which California courts overturned blight designations that failed to meet the CRL’s criteria, Elaine Evans believes that she has a good chance of defeating the redevelopment plan. By doing so, she hopes to prevent her buildings from being taken in the future for private developers.9
1 Janice Rombeck, “City Eases Fears, OKs Renewal Project; S.J. Residents Wary of Eminent Domain,” San Jose Mercury News, June 12, 2002, at B1.
2 Janice Rombeck, “Neighborhoods Seek Safeguards,” San Jose Mercury News, May 23, 2002, at B1.
3 “City Makes Offer on Tropicana as Owners Launch Legal Fight,” Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal, Oct. 11, 2002, at 1.
4 Janice Rombeck, “Neighborhoods Seek Safeguards,” San Jose Mercury News, May 23, 2002, at B1.
5 Janice Rombeck, “Vote Against Redevelopment Raises Questions,” San Jose Mercury News, Oct. 21, 2002, at B1.
6 Cal. Health & Safety Code § 33030 (b) (1) (Deering 2001).
7 Kate Folmar, “S.J. Sued Over Blight Designations,” San Jose Mercury News, Sept. 5, 2002, at A1.
8 Mike Zapler & Janice Rombeck, “Challenge to Criteria for San Jose Blight Plan,” San Jose Mercury News, July 26, 2002, at A1; Kate Folmar, “S.J. Sued Over Blight Designations,” San Jose Mercury News, Sept. 5, 2002, at A1.