Something about the word "blight" makes people mad.
Maybe it's the fact that it makes for good insults: "You're a blight on humanity." "You're a blighted specimen of a man."Even the dictionary definition sounds like an insult: "Something that impairs growth, withers hopes and ambitions, or impedes progress and prosperity."
"Blight," says Richard Thomas, owner of Thomas Electric at 200 South and 500 West, "is a four-letter word."
Given the loaded nature of the term, one can perhaps better understand why Thomas and other property owners in the Gateway area of Salt Lake City between 300 West and I-15 and North Temple and 900 South are concerned about becoming part of two proposed Redevelopment Agency project areas - the lion's share of the 650-acre Gateway area.
To become a project area, the areas have to be officially declared as "blighted." You've been there for years, working away, trying to make a go of things, then the city's Redevelopment Agency waltzes in and says, "Oh wow, this whole place just looks really terrible."
"We have been here for 65 years," Thomas said. "And now we're being stigmatized by the blight designation."
A blight survey of the Gateway area was completed last April, concluding the entire area was blighted.
Last month, the RDA board - the City Council in a different capacity - accepted the blight designation for the Gateway's northern portion. A redevelopment plan for that area is now being drawn up, and the RDA board is scheduled to accept or reject it in October.
What the specifics of the redevelopment plan will be is anybody's guess, but the master plan outlines a mixture of retail shops, business offices, apartments and cultural facilities. A large proposed development by developer Roger Boyer is included in the area, and it anticipates a large hotel, a plaza with water features from an above-ground City Creek, and mixed-used business and residential development.
Meanwhile, a hearing was held last week to receive input on whether to accept the blight designation for the "Granary" district in the Gateway's south end. A decision on that area is due Nov. 12.
There are no immediate plans to officially declare the middle Gateway area blighted because RDA officials consider that, what with highway viaduct reconstruction and heavy foot and vehicle traffic, it probably doesn't need the RDA's help to rejuvenate itself.
"It's going to have great accessibility, and I think people will recognize that and invest in it," said Salt Lake RDA Director Alice Steiner.
One thing property owners have complained about is that they haven't been involved enough in the process of designating redevelopment areas and the Gateway's master plan (adopted last month). They see city officials coming in and creating grandiose visions of what the Gateway could be without taking into account what existing residents might want.
"This is something that, frankly, we haven't been involved in," said Ralph Crabtree, director of real estate for EIMCO, a large manufacturing facility in the Gateway, at a recent hearing. "Quite honestly, I'm stunned. . . . I think something needs to happen here that we get a lot more involved."
Property owner Norman Feyl-ner was more blunt: "The property owner has no say whatsoever."
Loss of control over one's destiny - whether real or perceived - is a frightening thing, and the RDA's power of eminent domain compounds the threat. Though the Salt Lake RDA hasn't condemned any parcel of property for several years - it being a last resort, after attempts to get landowners' cooperation are exhausted - the prospect is always there, hanging over any discussion.
Sometimes lost in the eminent domain discussion is the fact that the RDA is only one of many government entities who have, and use, eminent domain power. Cities, school districts, the Utah Department of Transportation - all have the power to condemn.
While it officially disses residents and takes some control of their futures, the purpose of RDAs is to increase property values, rejuvenate areas, help redevelopment with low-interest loans and grants and special programs.
But many small-business owners don't know the ins and outs of how to go about taking advantage of them. Combined with the government coming in and partially controlling their destiny, the whole prospect makes many people nervous.
"(We need to) make sure there's enough money to be able to relocate and to take care of those businesses that have been in there a long time that have paid their taxes and upheld the city to the point where they can get to make this decision," said Gateway property owner Joseph Beesley.
Property owners, large and small, in redevelopment areas can apply for reimbursement of taxes, low-interest loans or grants with the RDA. In the case of Salt Lake City, the application process is carried out the first two months of the calendar year.
Should the two Gateway areas be designated project areas, the first applications will be processed in early 1999 - but probably only partial tax reimbursements to start off with, since the tax increment RDA fund will not have been built up yet.
Individual redevelopment areas also have programs specific to them, such as the downtown facade renovation program. What programs will be created for the Gateway areas remain to be seen.
And as for being insulted by the "blight" designation, don't take it personally.
"Sometimes the word `blight' is an awful, terrible, ominous word," said City Council Chairman Bryce Jolley. "(But) it is a legal word."
Redevelopment terms can be confusing
Many terms with regard to redevelopment agencies are tossed around without much understanding of what, exactly, they refer to. Here is a layman's guide to RDA-speak:
- Redevelopment agency: A public agency that works closely with a city or county government in revitalizing land that the agency considers "blighted" - rundown or ripe for redevelopment. The RDA board is comprised of members of the City Council, sitting in a different capacity.
- Redevelopment project area: An area that the RDA board designates as blighted and officially decides to redevelop using the powers of the RDA.
- Eminent domain: The most powerful tool of the RDA. In extreme cases of uncooperative property owners, the RDA can condemn the property to further its redevelopment plan. This power expires five years after an RDA project area is designated.
- Tax increment funding: How the RDA is funded. As property values increase in the redevelopment area, the RDA - not the usual taxing entities such as school districts and local governments - receives the additional property taxes due to the increased value. Depending on various factors, it can receive all or part of the tax increment anywhere from 12 to 25 years. It can then turn around and expend that income in grants or loans to businesses in the redevelopment area.
- Blight: An area that is at least 50 percent developed and is unsafe, unhealthy or conducive to crime because of defective construction, overcrowding, deterioration, irregular lots, inadequate infrastructure, the presence of hazardous waste or other factors. At least three of the factors must be present for the area to be considered blighted.