San Jose program for blighted neighborhoods must reinvent itself
Originally posted in San Jose Mercury News April 30, 2011
By Tracy Seipel
Davide Vieira remembers when the abandoned railroad tracks around East Santa Clara and 28th streets were a dumping ground for stolen cars stripped of their parts, a haven for drug dealers and a rendezvous point for prostitutes.
These days, it’s a much different place, largely because of San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative. Launched in 2000, the program — funded by the city’s once-robust redevelopment agency — has spent $104 million to enhance 19 blighted San Jose neighborhoods and teach their residents how to lobby for change.
Now, the program’s future looks grim, a victim of its ties to the bereft agency and bleeding budgets. And many wonder aloud if the neighborhoods will be able to make it on their own without city subsidies and leaders.
The initiative that boasted a budget of almost $18 million in 2004-05 and 55 employees has dropped to $3.2 million this year and 20 workers. Two were let go last month, and by Monday 12 others will be notified that they will be gone from the program by July 1. And it will only get worse after that.
“You could see how a lot of people will use this and throw up their hands and say, ‘Oh well, we’re doomed,'” said Vieira, whose family has lived and worked in the area for four decades. “Apathy is always possible, but I don’t think that’s the case in our area.”
The redevelopment agency may be best known for the $1.8 billion it spent to invigorate downtown and the North First Street tech corridor. But Vieira and others who live in the Five Wounds/Brookwood Terrace area care more about the dollars the agency has invested closer to home.
“It’s given people hope and confidence that they could make a difference, and the tools and courage to stand up to the elements that brought down their neighborhoods,” said Vieira, 51, a former software engineer who was among dozens of residents and college students picking up trash and painting over graffiti on a recent Saturday morning during a three-hour walk along the railroad tracks.
But the program is threatened by the imploding redevelopment agency, which is suffering from a huge drop in property assessments and massive debt. The agency could be eliminated under a proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to kill the state’s 425 redevelopment agencies and divert all the property tax they collect to schools and local governments.
In the future, the initiative’s ambitious mission of improving some of the most blighted areas in the city will have to be shouldered mostly by residents. But can the targeted neighborhoods succeed independently, or will the progress they’ve made be all for naught?
City Councilman Sam Liccardo, whose downtown district is among the three that have benefited most from the program, offers a blunt assessment: “The communities that have created a critical mass of active neighborhood leaders will continue to build on that momentum. But I worry about those that have not.”
When the program began under Mayor Ron Gonzales, the agency was flush with cash to fund community centers and parks, new streets and sidewalks, tree planting, streetlights and new building facades.
The public dollars leveraged private investment, often by housing developers, which city officials say has bolstered property values in the targeted areas.
Of all the neighborhood groups, Vieira’s is one of the strongest. Neighbors there even produced a 200-page blueprint for retail shops and housing around a future BART station behind the Five Wounds Portuguese National Church. And Vieira’s group also benefits from a unique five-year collaboration among the neighborhood, the city and San Jose State called CommUniverCity, in which students receive credit for community work.
Yet even if the program becomes a shadow of its former self, city officials and neighborhood leaders say, it has trained many residents well enough to continue on their own.
“We have the structure in place that (program leaders) have left behind, and we’ve been taught how to speak for ourselves,” said Lorena Vidrio, co-owner of two Taqueria Lorena’s restaurants in two of the 19 neighborhoods.
The cash-strapped city still believes in the program and its benefits, even if it has to be starkly reduced or reinvented.
“We can’t have the same presence in those 19 neighborhoods that we used to have,” said Deputy City Manager Norberto Duenas. “We’re going to have to refocus our efforts into the neighborhoods that have the highest needs.”
Acknowledging that looming reality, program director Kip Harkness last year convened a group of 140 neighborhood leaders and program staff to discuss their future, with an eye toward targeting 13 “focus areas” most impacted by crime and poverty.
Where the objective was once creating clean, safe and attractive neighborhoods, the new emphasis will be keeping them clean, safe and “engaged.”
“The idea is that they look at their surroundings and ask, ‘Why do we have cars being dumped over here? Why are the streetlights out? Why are there kids hanging out here at night causing problems?'” said Paul Pereira, a program manager.
Some of the answers, he and Harkness said, lie in the surroundings: When people ignore trash, dumping or broken streetlights, it gives the appearance that residents don’t care, inviting more trouble.
So instead of waiting for the city’s understaffed code enforcement unit to take care of those issues, Harkness said, large groups of residents can organize neighbor walks to look for problems.
Still, funding will remain a substantial challenge for many of the neighborhoods. In the Five Wounds region, for example, agency funds helped to renovate a shopping center at William and 24ths streets, expand Olinder Selma park and contributed to building the Roosevelt Community Center and a skateboard park there. In years to come, Vieira’s group hopes to transform the railroad track area into a trail and park. But for that to happen, it will have to find grants or private investment.
While self-reliance is the program’s new mindset, Harkness said, residents shouldn’t be abandoned by the city. It will try to provide help with whatever funding is left, along with video “kits” to help residents organize walks, block parties and ways to encourage derelict landlords to repair their properties, among other projects. The information, he stressed, will be available to residents citywide.
On Friday, Harkness met with some of those who are being let go from the program, and he was saddened by the loss. He continues to believe in the importance of the work that’s being done, but acknowledged, “I’m unsure what the future is for Strong Neighborhoods.”