SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS - SEPTEMBER 5, 2002

S.J. sued over blight designations

- Kate Folmer

A downtown property owner has filed a lawsuit that strikes at the underpinnings of San Jose's vaunted, multimillion-dollar effort to spruce up its neighborhoods, claiming officials improperly classified one-tenth of the city as blighted to justify the spending.

The lawsuit asks a superior court judge to toss out the city's Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, a plan to spend $120 million in redevelopment money on everything from playgrounds to new sidewalks.

The suit relies on increasingly successful strategy: questioning whether the city met legal criteria for blight, which makes the project eligible for redevelopment cash.

The findings are acceptable and appropriate," said Mayor Ron Gonzales. "It's unfortunate that a small group of people have kidnapped - or at least attempted to kidnap - this wonderful process."

Critics have long questioned the city's blight designations in its ambitious redevelopment efforts. But in this case, officials commissioned a particularly detailed report listing why 20 neighbor hoods - including a few of the city's nicer residential areas and some of its most run-down - are "a serious physical and economic burden on the community."

City officials Wednesday said that they had fully met the requirements laid out in state law and would win in court. They vowed to press ahead with the improvement plan, which is expected to be carried out over several years.

Sprucing up neighborhoods is a worthy goal, said lawyer Colleen O'Brien, who represents plaintiff Elaine Evans. But it should be done with city cash - not redevelopment funds. Evans could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

In July, Evans previewed her lawsuit, sending a 12-page letter to the city outlining her grave concerns about the neighborhood plan.

"The question isn't whether there are pockets... of blight," O'Brien said. "It's a very complex law. And there are very specific findings that have to be made. The redevelopment agency didn't even come close."

Nonsense, said city leaders.

They said that a 160-page analysis conducted before the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative approval in June documents everything from cracked sidewalks to higher crime rates in the area where a third of the city's residents live. Simply put, it's blighted.

For an area to be blighted, state law requires that problems be "so prevalent and substantial" that they cannot be remedied by private business or regular government workings. Redevelopment allows cities to use eminent domain to seize property and it permits them to collect property taxes that would otherwise go to schools, counties and other public agencies.

"The findings are acceptable and appropriate," said Mayor Ron Gonzales. "It's unfortunate that a small group of people have kidnapped - or at least attempted to kidnap - this wonderful process."

Gonzales added that San Jose residents living in neglected neighborhoods don't care if the city or the redevelopment agency foots the bill, so long as "improvements come now."

The suit, which names the city and redevelopment agency as plaintiffs, is scheduled for its first status conference Dec. 17. It was filed Aug. 21, but escaped city attention because O'Brien ad her partner had not notified San Jose of the suit until Wednesday.

For decades, courts gave cities a wide berth in determining what constituted blight, said Michael Dardia, a redevelopment expert with the Sphere Institute in Burlingame. But appellate courts have been more skeptical recently - striking down plans in cities smaller than San Jose for not sufficiently proving blight or not proposing solutions that fix blight.