Fighting blight: City seeks to create new redevelopment district

The Las Vegas City Council will vote Aug. 15 on a plan to vastly expand the redevelopment district – actually, to create a whole new, second district – stretching west along Charleston, taking in every commercial parcel from the Interstate 15 to Rainbow, south from the 95 along Decatur to Sahara, and also including the Meadows Mall and Sahara itself from Decatur back east to I-15.

The move would allow the city to re-funnel back into the district all added property tax revenue generated by any increased valuation. Proponents talk of improvements such as sidewalk upgrades or matching grants for business owners who want to re-paint the fronts of their buildings.

City officials – and Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian, whose district includes the new proposed redevelopment area – certainly have the best of intentions here. Parts of this area have indeed deteriorated over the years. If the city can help bootstrap new development there, that would be great. But before they proceed, City Council members need to consider a few issues.

In the past, the city has a history of misusing eminent domain under the guise of redevelopment to seize properties and convey them to better-connected private developers. This triggered great controversy and led to lawsuits during previous efforts to improve both downtown and the area near the Stratosphere. Council members insist they won’t use that power, but the statute they’re invoking does not impose such a policy restriction on future city governments.

In addition, this massive new redevelopment map goes well beyond the limited areas in the ward that feature closed-down restaurants or auto dealerships or other vacant commercial development. The $1 million the city has already set aside to get started would be stretched over an area that has about 10 miles of major streets, notes Councilman Bob Beers. “Is that enough to reverse the blight?” Mr. Beers asks, “especially if the blight is not localized blight but symptomatic of a regional economic downturn?”

There has, in fact, been significant new investment made recently along Charleston – north of Decatur and across from the community college, for instance – all without city intervention.

The greatest success of downtown redevelopment has been the Smith Center and other construction on the old Union Pacific parcel, just west of downtown. But that was brought about through a land swap, in which New York-based Lehman Bros. Holdings acquired 97 vacant acres in the Las Vegas Technology Park at Tenaya Way and Smoke Ranch Road. That further-north area now brags medical facilities and the headquarters of a health insurance corporation – all developed far more quickly by private parties without the aid of any public incentives, meaning that “less valuable” land actually ended up generating more property taxes, faster, Mr. Beers points out.

Take out the UP’s 61 acres – which benefited mightily from former Mayor Oscar Goodman’s personal promotion – and the successes of redevelopment downtown, on the Westside or on Decatur north of U.S. 95, have been spotty, at best.

No doubt parts of Ms. Tarkanian’s ward have seen better days and merit attention. Redevelopment designation could be a helpful tool. But if that’s to occur, city officials must learn from experience rather than simply repeat the approaches of the past. And that must entail seeking active participation from the private actors involved.

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