“This is a grotesque charade!” shouted William Smith, a lawyer prone to spicing his remarks with exclamation points.
He was at City Hall for a 1977 public hearing about a $4 million loan being given to the Santa Rosa Redevelopment Agency. Smith was demanding how and when the money was to be spent. The city was supposed to be repaid either by property taxes or a future bond.
The acting chairman for the Agency, Ted Grosman, gave a curt reply. “Your request will be taken under advisement and our staff, after research, will respond to it,” he said, adding it could take a week or more.
“If no one in this room knows when you are going to spend the money, then you must have an incompetent staff,” Smith declared.
“We have no intention of answering your questions without more research,” said Grosman.
“Research?” Smith yelled, according to the Press Democrat. “Why do you need to research it? You must all be bloomin’ idiots!”
Grosman told Smith he was “harassing the agency.” It was around that point when someone called the police.
Smith – the attorney for Codding Enterprises, which at that point had fought development of a downtown mall for about five years – had been at the same speakers’ podium a few days before when the City Council approved that loan on a unanimous vote. Besides objecting to the Agency only saying the money would be used for vague infrastructure improvements to support future construction of the mall, he argued the city had already sold $5M in bonds for the same purpose. Also, it was no sure thing that the mall would even be built.
“Apparently there are five idiots on the City Council,” Smith said, adding sarcastically the quasi-independent agency should be congratulated for “suckering the City Council [into the loan]. Not even the flim-flam man could have done a better job.”
By then the policeman had arrived. The officer yanked Smith away from the microphone on the third try.
More about the loan appears below; it kept coming back to haunt the mall project like Banquo’s ghost. But lest Gentle Reader be left with the impression Smith was the only boorish jerk in the Council chambers, at the earlier meeting Councilmen told him to shut up and not keep bothering them with his “same old tired song” about the city making questionable decisions. “As for the use of the money, we are allowed to use it for any redevelopment matter we choose,” said Director of Community Development Burns.
That princely attitude led City Hall to increasingly put Santa Rosa at legal and financial risk as it sought to accommodate Ernest Hahn, the developer who intended to develop a downtown mall. They transformed a commercial building project into a crusade which they earnestly believed could not be allowed to fail.
In pursuit of that the City Council and others at City Hall went to war. Actually, this was more of a new front in the ongoing mall war – already the Coddings and the city had been locked in courtroom combat for years. Their new nemesis was neither a lawyer or a rival developer; it was a sizable number of ordinary citizens. Yes, some of those people sided with Codding and opposed building a mega-mall downtown, but what they universally did not want was for the city to use millions of public $$ subsidizing the developer’s shopping center. Too many had bitter memories of going to City Hall with proposals to make their neighborhoods better places to live, only to be met with pushback against considering even their modest wishes. Better to hoard monies which might be needed for a project whose groundbreaking was still years away – or may not even materialize at all. There was no better example of displaced priorities in those mad times.
Much had happened in the three years since out-of-town consultants completed the Environmental Impact Report for the project in 1974. The City Council and the Urban Renewal Agency held a joint public hearing that October which lasted seven hours and drew 300+ people. Main items on the agenda were the certification of the EIR and formal inclusion of Phase III (the blocks from Fifth street to Seventh) into the redevelopment project.
Speaking against both topics were attorney Smith and others in Codding’s circle as well as members of the Save the Cal group that wanted the public to vote on whether the mall project should be approved. A few weeks later Codding Enterprises would file another stop-the-mall lawsuit – its sixth – arguing the EIR was inadequate, mainly because it accepted the city’s wildly optimistic projections that the mall would immediately be so successful it would quickly pay off that $4 million loan and whatever additional millions to raised via bonds. Failing their best-case scenario could mean that schools, fire departments and other public services might be screwed out of funding for years. All this was discussed here earlier in some depth.
(Here’s also a reminder this is all part of a broader series on Santa Rosa redevelopment: “YESTERDAY IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER,” which includes an index covering everything on the topic going back to the 1960s. This is chapter nine of the series just about the downtown mall.)
The EIR also downplayed how backing the mall was placing the city at financial risk because Washington had turned off the urban renewal easy money spigot. Until 1973, Santa Rosa and other cities knew they could get millions of federal dollars as easily as if they were merely collecting warm change from the bottom of a clothes dryer. Declare a section of town as being old and rundown – AKA “blighted” – and the government would pay to buy up all of the properties. The city would then bulldoze it flat and sell the parcels to developers for a fraction of the appraised value (or even free!) with the assumption something would be built that was nicer and would bring in more tax revenue.
Some funding would still be coming in because this was an urban renewal project already in the pipeline before the 1973 cutoff – an issue that still rankled, because Santa Rosa won fast approval by claiming it was for “emergency rehabilitation” due to the 1969 quake, not someday building a mega-mall on the edge of downtown.1
Replacing the government’s Urban Renewal program was the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. In theory, it was intended to cut federal red tape and return more control to the community level, where wiser and faster decisions could be made on poverty-reducing assistance such as creating more affordable housing. Of course, it could also work the other way – a rapacious local government might use it to grab more power and spend public funds with little oversight. In theory.
The first tranche of government money under the new grant program was to be $1.8M annually, starting in 1975. As part of the Housing Act’s requirement for citizen participation, Santa Rosa set up a “Community Development Task Force” to ask the public how they wanted the funds to be used. Task Force members – appointed by the City Council from several city offices including the Urban Renewal Agency (URA) – scheduled meetings with the League of Women Voters, leaders of various community advocacy groups (the Chamber of Commerce was the only one named by the Press Democrat), and held a few forums open to the general public.
An account of one of these meetings appeared in a letter to the PD, and suggested the Task Force wasn’t all that interested in listening to the public. The letter also happens to underscore a point that later came out – that the Task Force was counting such meetings with neighborhood study groups as “citizen input” even while they were withholding information, particularly that funds might be available to make civic improvements which were greatly desired by local residents.
|…The “task force” consisted of five bright young men from the manager’s office, engineering, planning, etc. Two men carried the table, one man the slide projector. One man set up the screen and the fifth man pushed the button when the recording told him to change the slide. Following that, one of the men spent 20 minutes telling about the Schedule 8 program which is not yet available. Only after that did we learn that Schedule 8 is not a part of the $1.8 million. Why it was introduced is still a question in my mind. A printed sheet entitled “What is Community Development Revenue Sharing” was distributed. You cannot meaningfully describe an object without telling its purpose. Yet with intent or not this is just what the city has done…Page One of the [new Housing Act] law states: “The primary objective of this title is the development of viable urban communities, by providing decent housing and a suitable living environment and expanding economic opportunities, principally for persons of low and moderate income.” Square this law against the city’s information sheet…
The letter concluded by urging people attend upcoming City Council hearings and that “the charge was made at the meeting that the determination has already been made on how to spend the money.”
Such a decision had indeed been made. The URA wanted $1M – more than half of the entire funding – for the mall project, likely to be used for constructing the Third Street underpass.2 Funding for that was considered the top infrastructure priority on behalf of the mall developer. That million dollars infusion was also expected to ease the pressure on quickly sealing a deal for the controversial $4 million city loan.
With the wisdom of hindsight, it’s clear the Task Force outreach was about as wrongheaded as it could be. The city tried to use it as a PR campaign to sway the town into believing the mall would be a great benefit to the whole community. Instead, they pissed off nearly everyone and mobilized a resistance movement that had not existed before. An opposition leader later told the City Council they needed to clean house and replace everyone responsible for the SNAFU, having “waited until the last minute before they started this furor about citizen participation…perhaps you have relied too heavily on your City Manager and his staff.”
The Santa Rosa-Sonoma County Branch of the NAACP said the attempt to grab that one million dollars was completely unacceptable, and had already met with federal and state officials in San Francisco. “There’s a lot of Mickey Mousing going on in this thing,” said the chair of the NAACP housing and community development committee. “It would be the biggest rip off on the people of Santa Rosa that has ever been perpetrated.”
Ann L. Byrd, president of the local NAACP, sent a letter to the city saying they were considering a lawsuit. “The city wants to spend the money for downtown development while not doing anything about housing for low and moderate income people…it is beyond our comprehension how the special Task Force, set up by the City Council, can recommend to the citizens of this community a plan that will subsidize a private developer to build a shopping center…”
Over just a few weeks in January 1975 a coalition of about 20 groups joined in protest of the Task Force plan, some apparently formed expressly to oppose it.3
Ahead of the first City Council hearing on the $1.8M spending plan, the URA cut its mall money demands from $1M to $681,000. It was still by far the largest chunk of the funding; despite the federal grant coming from a program intended to support low-income housing the Task Force suggested only $260k be used for that purpose, recommending the city try to find federal assistance somewhere else.
“The problems of today in unemployment, housing and social areas must be addressed,” read the new report from the Task Force, “but they must share available resources with other community development needs in order that Santa Rosa remain a viable urban city.”
This let-them-eat-cake pose only deepened suspicions City Hall wasn’t listening to anyone outside of City Hall. “We’re getting sold down the drain,” a group spokesman told the PD. “The people are really shook up. We figured this was the one time we could get a little help.”
The City Council chambers were packed for the 3½ hour hearing and not one person spoke in favor of using federal dollars to fund the mall. NAACP president Byrd asked, “Are you so worried that the citizens will disagree with your stragedy to subsidize a private developer?” (And yes, “stragedy” is a real word.) Another coalition member also wondered why we were working so hard to support a Los Angeles developer: “We are in the choicest part of the fastest growing county in the Bay Area. Is it necessary to offer this much inducement to get someone into a sure thing?”
Instead of the mall, Santa Rosans said they wanted a senior center, a youth center, a rehab center, a daycare center and low income housing. Two Councilmen (Zatman and Jones) were called out for having remarked city-subsidized housing was a step towards socialism.
Disturbing comments were made at that hearing and the one following. The group from the Burbank Gardens neighborhood had requested traffic work in their area estimated to cost $50 thousand, but the chairperson was told by a city official that opposition to the Task Force proposal could make approval doubtful.
NAACP president Byrd, who owned a public relations company, said at a hearing she was warned to “tread lightly” with criticism “and reminded that people such as yourselves [the Councilmen] are ‘the bread and butter’ of my business,” as her voice broke with emotion, according to the PD. “Economic reprisal can destroy my business.”
Faced with a united front of citizen opposition, the mayor announced he was creating a “Community Development Advisory Committee” to work with the Task Force. There were to be a dozen members of the public joined by three from the city, all selected by the mayor.
But like the Task Force outreach sessions, it was really a clumsy attempt to propagandize for the mall project. The mayor decreed no recommendations would be considered unless they were unanimous. Committee members would meet in secret and be forbidden to speak with the press. And it particularly rankled he was limiting membership to a small number not representative of the coalition’s diversity. “You’re not going to play that old divide and conquer game with us. There are no Chicanos. There are no Indians. There are no neighborhoods,” Byrd told a PD reporter. “We won’t serve. That just wasn’t cool.” They walked out during the second meeting and the coalition issued a statement city staff was attempting to “buy off” individual members.
The faux advisory committee was very much the final straw. The NAACP’s West Coast legal team began preparing a lawsuit against the city and notified the federal and regional housing offices that Santa Rosa was not in compliance with the Community Development Act because there was no meaningful public input.
Ann Byrd also told the Council that coalition members (there were over 300 at the last hearing, remember) were furiously writing letters to any/all elected officials. They were also starting to gather names on petitions for a recall of the entire City Council. If the city continued using their spending plan, Byrd said, the coalition “will be forced to proceed with the distribution of petitions to secure the necessary signatures to recall each and every one of you as soon as possible.”
The City Council blinked. The possibility of all redevelopment funding being delayed (or even cancelled!) was too great a risk. They cut the budget for the mall project to $550k and added $100k to the housing portion. Although the Council surely knew there was no actual threat of recalls, it probably came a little too close to pitchforks and torches for politicians to be comfortable.4
In the middle of all this churn during Feb. 1975, the Council put its finger on the true reason why so many were protesting the $1.8M spending plan, the sham meetings by the Task Force, and general direction of the mall project. It was all the fault of that mastermind of masterminds, that Svengali of Svengalis: Hugh Codding.
At the same session where they approved the lower $550k for the mall, the Council spent considerable time ragging on Codding. Besides the vintage whine that his lawsuits had blocked other means of funding the mall project, they complained this had forced them to dip into the community development money. Councilman Poznanovich didn’t directly accuse Codding of bribing the 20 groups in the opposition coalition, but made a snarky charge they were “led down the golden path by Codding.” Hugh called Poznanovich a “damn liar” and “stupid,” according to the PD.
Santa Rosa continued to find itself unprepared to enter this brave new world of service oriented government. The city lacked a housing department; when required, the City Council was expected to don its Housing Authority hat. After some bureaucratic can-kicking, it was decided in 1976 to create the Community Development Commission. It consisted of a (non-Council) Housing Authority together with the Urban Renewal Agency, now renamed the Redevelopment Commission. Both offices were made up with the same five men from the pro-developer URA, although there were two women added to the Housing Authority side.
In the latter part of the 1970s the Coddings continued to file lawsuits, including two over that $4 million city loan. (At one point a judge ordered the many Codding suits consolidated into “the validation suit.”) He didn’t win any of them – although I’m not positive of that, as it’s even unclear how many were actually filed. The Press Democrat counted variously between 18-22.5 Rohnert Park lost its anti-trust suit against Santa Rosa, developer Hahn and HUD; Hahn lost his $40M anti-trust suit against Codding. As it appeared more evident the mall really was going to be built, the focus of critics turned to trying to find ways to mitigate the impacts the thing would have on the town, as discussed in the following chapter.
Throughout those last pre-mall years the project continued to strain city budgets, particularly after passage of Proposition 13. Hahn said he would pay the Redevelopment Agency $400,000 a year to make up the difference in lost property tax, and that agreement was used to secure the long-delayed $4M loan from the city. The window for starting construction was closing fast; by the end of the decade interest rates were up to ten percent and still climbing.
The tight money situation meant city infrastructure projects related to the mall were pushed into 1979, including street improvements and a $1 million traffic signal system. At the same time, Robert Gong, owner of the G&G Shopping Center on West College, asked for permission to expand. Sorry, he was told; street work would be necessary and there’s no money left in the budget. Couldn’t you wait a few years? asked the Planning staff.
To get them to improve the streets – the same sort of work that was being done for the mall developer for free – Gong had to give the city a five-year, no-interest $350,000 loan.
The word Gentle Reader is probably trying to think of right now might be “extortion.”
1 HUD approval on a new urban renewal application usually took 3-4 years and required costly and extensive studies, so Santa Rosa’s 1970 proposal would certainly not have made it through the process before the 1973 cutoff if normal rules were followed. Instead of conceding the work to be done between B Street and the highway constituted a new project, the city simply appended its application to the old redevelopment plan for the area around Courthouse Square from the mid-1960s and claimed it was just a continuation. (MORE)
2 It wasn’t until 1977 before Santa Rosa was awarded $1,283,000 to “depress” Third Street. The grant came from the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) because the work was projected to provide a significant number of construction jobs.
3 The most vocal groups against the Task Force proposal were the Sonoma County People for Economic Opportunity (SCPEO), the NAACP, the Burbank Area Project Committee, the Valley Oaks Tenants Inter-action Committee, Sonoma County Tomorrow, Taxpayers Committee for the Right to Vote, the Women’s Council of Realtors, People for a Better Society and Energy for the People. Another group that filed suit at this time was the United Community Development Corp (UCDC) representing Filipino, Native and Mexican Americans. Their issue was that the EIR didn’t consider impact on an archeological site delimited by Santa Rosa Creek, highway 101, B street and halfway between First and Second streets.
4 As the Save the Cal group earlier discovered, it was extremely difficult to place a citizen initiative on the ballot. Not only did they have to collect signatures from 25 percent of registered voters, it was baked into the City Charter that petitions could be signed at only three locations which had to be approved by the city.
|5 Some Codding lawsuits were refiled, leaving a question as to whether they should be counted as a separate complaint. Also, it could be said Codding technically won his first suit, made in April 1973 when the URA stonewalled the release of an important document from Hahn. The letter was disclosed a week later, and when the suit came before the court it was ruled as moot.