Our View: Is this the last we’ll see of Streetscape and redevelopment?

Our View
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Use it or lose it … or the last waltz? As the city of Auburn spends its remaining redevelopment money on the second phase of the Streetscape project, building improvements and, potentially, an electronic billboard facing Interstate 80, we wonder if this is a step in Auburn’s revival or the end of a dream. Whichever it is, the money should be used thoughtfully and wisely. Time will tell if such is the case. At its Valentine’s Day meeting, the Auburn Urban Development Authority — which consists of the five city council members — voted to advertise bids for the second phase of Streetscape to improve streets, sidewalks and lighting between Central Square and Oakwood Drive. For the map-challenged, that’s Lincoln Way between Big O Tires and Meritage Motors. Engineers estimate construction at about $1.1 million. At the same meeting, the AUDA authorized $60,000 for the sign, probably at the end of Reamer Street along eastbound I-80, a few hundred yards from the Elm Avenue off-ramp. Monday night, AUDA likely will authorize nearly $250,000 to upgrade the Old Town Firehouse and rehabilitate the Old City Hall on High Street east of Central Square. The nearly $1.5 million in projects will essentially drain the city’s redevelopment fund, leaving about $100,000 remaining for other improvement projects. About $500,000 of the $2.1 million left in the fund must be kept aside to pay back debt on the bonds that made the projects possible in the first place. No doubt, city administrators and elected council members are feeling the heat from Sacramento, where Gov. Jerry Brown boldly announced in January that recovering nearly $1.7 billion in annual property taxes bound for local redevelopment projects would be a cornerstone of his plan to help bridge the $26.6 billion budget gap. Polls have backed up Brown. A survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in late January indicated nearly two-thirds of state voters would rather see redevelopment tax revenues go to schools, as well as city and county general funds to support law enforcement and other needs. Less scientific studies have shown as much as 80 percent support eliminating redevelopment agencies and killing tax breaks for developers in enterprise zones established to reduce blight and promote economic development. The city, joining other redevelopment agencies across the state, is racing to dedicate the money before state lawmakers pass a bill freezing such spending. According to city officials, the $1.6 million left in the account can be spent on street improvements such as Streetscape, façade work on commercial buildings within the redevelopment area, street and parking improvements and structural upgrades such as the historic firehouse and former city hall, which for years housed the Boys & Girls Club of Auburn. The firehouse is an Auburn icon and worthy of restoration, which this project would do. But what could $135,000 buy in other street, sidewalk and parking improvements? Is there a plan to open the building to visitors and promote it as part of the Old Town experience? As for the old city hall building, the $114,000 project could facilitate the move of the Placer County Visitors Center. A new roof, drainage work, interior remodeling and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance improvements make sense in bringing a dated building back to leasable life — especially if tourism marketing is the tenant. If redevelopment dies in the state budget crisis and never returns, Auburn will be hard-pressed to generate the money needed to finish the 10-phase Streetscape project. And that would be a shame. Despite its critics — and the Journal has been one from time to time — Streetscape has revived a small section of Downtown Auburn and provided hope to businesses there. It’s also provided a taxpayer funded benefit to property owners in Central Square. Moving forward, business owners who’d like to see improvements in front of their stores should work with the city and contribute some of their own money toward future projects that would beautify the shopping district and increase traffic flow into their shops. It still remains exciting to believe what Auburn could be with dramatic remodeling from Elm Avenue to Old Town. Depending on the future of redevelopment, city staff and council members should be open to hearing from residents on city infrastructure priorities. City officials have done a commendable job up to this point, but as cash gets tighter, so will the need for communication between city hall and taxpayers who foot the bill.