By Ted Godshalk
On March 2, 2004, the City Council of National City, acting as the Community Development Commission (CDC), was prepared to expand its power to use eminent domain on all properties in all commercial and industrial zones in the city. By means of an amendment to the National City Redevelopment Project Area.” Eminent domain is simply the city’s use of the court system to condemn property and remove residents from their homes against their will. This new power would possibly affect the lives of residents in over 900 homes in the redevelopment areas extending from the San Diego Bay east to Interstate 805.
Concerned residents and homeowners from National City’s Old Town presented the CDC with the signatures of thirty-seven residents on a petition declaring: No Eminent Domain and No Community Development without Community Involvement.
Ruben Rubio de Old Town National City spoke at the CDC meeting. He described how the people of Old Town have fought the battle to save their homes many times since the middle of the last century. In the 1950s, Rubio helped form the Home Protective League to campaign for their rights. Rubio added that the city uses scare tactics and that he gets very worried every time the subject of home condemnation comes up. Another homeowner and petition signer, Linda Aguirre, pointed out that if someone was forced to sell their home they would not receive enough money to buy another home, especially so close to the bay. She made it clear she wants to stay in her home in Old Town.
One of National City Mayor Inzunza’s ten visionary goals is the promotion of neighborhoods we can all be proud of, complete with new housing opportunities. The residents of Old Town National City already have a sense of pride, which is felt by people like Ruben Rubio and Maria Avalos, a resident and homeowner for 80 years. The pride of Old Town is felt by the young students of Kimball Elementary, by the many parishioners of St. Anthony’s Church, and by many other residents. It is their pride, their history, and their deep sense of community that moves them to defend their homes.
But what is in store for National City and what do the residents what? If new housing is to be built in their neighborhood, the residents want to play a role in the planning process. If new commercial enterprises want to locate in the city, the residents want them to be environmentally safe and respectful to the surrounding neighborhood. These are reasonable wishes, common to all communities. People resent the plans of developers and city government when the plans are presented in the “final” form. All good urban planning is born from community input.
In the last two years National City has seen an increase in new redevelopment. In fact, redevelopment now seems to have a run-away momentum unchecked by community input. Three new projects illustrate this. Wal-Mart hit town the behemoth it is with a new store on Highland Avenue. Whether you agree or not with Wal-Mart’s corporate policies, it is hard to dispute there are changes set in motion when this big-box store comes to town. One change everyone recognizes is that small neighborhood stores face an even tougher uphill struggle to survive. Second, Costco is proposing a new store near Plaza Bonita. The third example is a plan in the works to renovate Plaza Boulevard as a “Filipino Village” shopping district. The question is: how will this fast-paced redevelopment, unchecked by community input, serve our community needs?
All redevelopment projects require CDC approval and some project require CDC financial assistance. In the future, the mayor and city council will exercise their power to sell municipal bonds of a value from $30 million to $100 million and use the money to condemn and purchase properties through eminent domain. The debt from the bonds may strain city funding of needed services. Will this serve our community needs?
National City is not a collection of parcels on a map, divided up in zones to be bought and sold with government subsidies to developers. It is much more. This city is made up of real people, some from long established families and others recent immigrants. This city is not a coal mine where business people can come in, have an audience with a politician or staff member and be granted right to go out and capture resources. When the CDC staff wants t use our tax money to drive homeowners out of their homes it is a sickening and discouraging comment on our city government. When a property owner holds out, refusing not to sell at any price, then the city needs to be more creative with their approach to urban renewal. Bad planning is not an excuse for more power; it is a reason for a limit on power and a call for more community involvement.
In the face of the delivered petitions and the speakers’ passionate defense of their homes, Councilman Ron Morrison said, “it’s obvious people have lost their trust... I don’t think the confidence nor the need is there.” Morrison made a motion to exclude any and all single-family owner occupied residences in all zones from the threat of eminent domain. Councilman Luis Natividad seconded Morrison’s motion and noted that he was in the trenches with Herman Baca and Ruben Rubio when the battle for Old Town was fought in the 1960s and 70s. Natividad promised, “I don’t blame you for being concerned. I will never take out a house as long as I am in here. You don’t need to worry.” First-term councilman Fideles Ungab added, “I feel for you.” The mayor and council members sitting as the CDC voted unanimously to exclude single-family, owner-occupied homes from the Redevelopment Plan’s eminent domain powers in their amendment.
Mayor Inzunza was silent during the discussion period of the meeting. While he voted in favor of Morrison’s motion, it is not clear how he feels. Maybe he will add another goal to his vision for National City. Residents of Old Town think he needs to add: I will honor and respect the people who live in National City and I will ask them for their input before I sell out to real estate and development interests.
Redevelopment Law in California has given local government many powers over private property; however, the voters still have a role to play in public policy. National City is an example of this. All people of National City not just those in Old Town you need to keep your ears to the ground. Listen for the early rumble of the redevelopment machine. Watch for hearing notices and access the city’s website at www.ci.nationalcity.ca.us for agendas and minutes of the CDC, City Council, and Planning Commission. Demand that the city adopts policies for notifying property owners of meetings with much more than the minimum 24 hour notice required. Attend your Neighborhood Council meetings and bring your neighbor. If you don’t have a Neighborhood Council in your area, you are welcome to come to the Old town Neighborhood Council at Casa de Salud (1408 Harding Avenue) on the fourth Thursday of every month at 6:30 pm. Be vigilant and work together to ensure city staff and elected politicians know what you want for the future of National City. Set the record straight, with a loud voice and as often you can. Let city government know that you have plans for the future that you want to see come to fruition. Settings goals if important too. Community Involvement in all Community Development is a good goal for everyone to start with.
Ted Godshalk can be contacted at email@example.com.