The City of Baldwin Park is pressing forward with an extremely ambitious redevelopment project that would convert the present downtown area of mostly single story commercial structures and modest houses into a very high-density, mixed-use district adjacent to a Metrolink station. However, the city's extensive planning and a deal with a developer may be for naught if state voters approve eminent domain restrictions that will appear on the June ballot.

City officials say the project would bring much needed investment and wealth to Baldwin Park, a San Gabriel Valley suburb that for years was best known as the corporate home of the In-N-Out Burger chain. (In-N-Out has since moved to Irvine.) But local detractors of the downtown project have begun organizing protests, and managers of the statewide campaign for Proposition 98, which would restrict the use of eminent domain, are citing the Baldwin Park project as a prime example of the government activity they want to halt.

Although the project is still somewhat ill-defined, the basics are these: The Baldwin Park Community Development Commission (the city's redevelopment agency) would acquire 125 acres in the middle of town, with master developer Bisno Development funding the acquisitions and any resident and business relocation costs. Bisno would then receive the property and develop it in phases over 15 years with 8,000 housing units, 3 million square feet of commercial space, 750,000 square feet of retail and entertainment uses, a 300-room hotel and a charter school. Public improvements would include a pedestrian promenade, a lagoon and extensive upgrades to the existing Metrolink station.

"The project is presented pretty much as a transit-oriented development," explained Marc Castagnola, the community development director who arrived in Baldwin Park in mid-process. "The intent is that the people who are going to live downtown will be able to walk just a block or two and ride the transit."

There is a significant obstacle: The 125-acre redevelopment site that centers around the intersection of Ramona Boulevard, Maine Avenue and Pacific Avenue is broken into about 330 developed parcels, most of which are privately owned. Opponents estimate the redevelopment project would displace about 100 households and 300 businesses.

"We're just not good enough," huffed Ken Woods, who owns a 54-year-old sewing machine repair and embroidery business in the redevelopment project area. "They don't want our kind of people — working blue collar people."

Woods has helped organize a local group called Community Alliance for Redevelopment Accountability (CARA) that started making its opposition to the project known last fall. He does not deny that the area "needs sprucing up." But he and others argue that the city is moving too fast on a plan that lacks local support.

"We keep saying back off, get us involved," Woods said. "They want to bulldoze 125 acres and start over."

After soliciting proposals from developers, the City Council signed an agreement with Los Angeles-based Bisno in late 2006. Since then, the city, Bisno and consultants have been working simultaneously on a general plan amendment, a specific plan and an environmental impact report, according to Castagnola. A draft EIR is expected to be released this month, with a final EIR and the other documents to follow in a few months, he said.

The specific plan "will look a lot like a zoning code," Castagnola said. The specific plan will set land uses and densities, establish architectural and color standards, outline a landscape palate, and provide an open space design, he said. The specific plan will also contain the development entitlements, meaning there would be only minor review of follow-up projects that comply with the specific plan.

Castagnola said the redevelopment agency would provide "no monetary subsidies" to Bisno for the project other than making available the 20% housing set-aside fund for affordable units. However, the agreement between the Community Development Commission and Bisno states that if the developer's cost of acquiring land and relocating businesses and residents tops an average of $2 million per acre, the Commission will reimburse Bisno the difference with tax increment. The agreement pledges up to half of the project area's tax increment to make up the difference.

In January 2007, CEO Robert Bisno sent the city a letter urging a fast planning process that would be complete before a vote on any restrictive initiative. At the time, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association was discussing an initiative that eventually turned into Proposition 98, a measure that would prevent the taking of private property from one owner for transfer to another private entity. The rival Proposition 99 would prevent the taking of owner-occupied single-family houses for transfer to another private owner. Clearly, the city is not going to beat the June 3 election date.

The city's inability — or unwillingness — to rush the process to beat election day is good, said Marko Mlikotin, a spokesman for the Proposition 98 campaign. That is, it's good for the community and good for the campaign, which has begun featuring Baldwin Park as exhibit A of redevelopment abuse.

"You have your greedy developer. You have a dispassionate city council. You're going to have hundreds of people homeless," Mlikotin recited.

In recent months, public meetings in Baldwin Park, a 70% Latino city of 81,000 people, have grown more and more tense. Opponents of the downtown project have put the City Council on the defensive and have staged street protests. Councilmembers recently refused to speak to a Los Angeles Business Journal reporter, and Mayor Manuel Lopez did not return messages from CP&DR. Late last year, Lopez told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that opponents were using misinformation and scare tactics. "We don't even know if this project is even going to occur or not," Lopez told the newspaper.

Woods said that if the project goes forward, he'll close his business rather than try to relocate. Ironically, he is in his present location after losing his commercial building during the late 1980s to an earlier redevelopment project that brought a supermarket and other stores to the downtown area. "Now they are going to tear down the area that they redeveloped in the first place," Woods said.

Marc Castagnola, City of Baldwin Park, (626) 813-5253.
Ken Woods, Community Alliance for Redevelopment Accountability, (626) 962-5298.
Marko Mlikotin, California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights, (916) 444-8781.
Bisno Development project website: