OAKLAND -- With March 1 looming as a nebulous deadline to commit the city's redevelopment dollars, Oakland leaders strained for answers this week on what the future holds and how the city should prepare.

It's a challenge that cities across the state are facing in the wake of Gov. Jerry Brown's announcement that he hopes to eliminate all redevelopment agencies, a move he says would bring in $1.7 billion toward closing California's catastrophic budget gap.

At her weekly media briefing Thursday, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said the possible loss of redevelopment "would have the largest impact of any state budget proposal" currently on the table.

"It's our only real resource for economic development," Quan said. "It's also the largest source, next to federal funds, for affordable housing."

Redevelopment cash in Oakland is crucial to a new ballpark that could be the city's best hope at holding on to the A's -- though San Jose, which is courting the team, is also relying on redevelopment funds to build a ballpark there.

Redevelopment money is also tied up in numerous city projects and payrolls, Quan said, including:

  • Paying for 17 police officers who work in retail, residential and industrial parts of town;

  • All city-paid housing rehabilitation programs in West Oakland, where 75 percent of existing buildings were built before 1917;


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  • Oakland's mortgage assistance program for first-time homebuyers;

  • Rebuilding the infrastructure of the Oakland Army Base.

    Further, redevelopment funds have been essential, officials say, to leveraging grants and other sources of funding.

    The new East Oakland library branch at 1021 81st Ave., which opened Saturday and reportedly issued almost 500 new library cards that day alone, would have been impossible to build without using redevelopment money to secure a state grant worth millions more.

    Critics say cities have used redevelopment money for reasons not in the original spirit of the agencies. Quan said the police paid for by the funds, for example, are a crucial factor in eliminating blight and encouraging business in tough neighborhoods.

    She also called on Brown to consider cuts to the state's prison guards union and charging oil companies for extracting oil here -- though she acknowledged the two represent a "third-rail of politics" -- a term usually used to describe policies or programs that if touched, could represent political suicide.

    Brown has said that funds already borrowed or committed won't be affected if redevelopment gets the chop, and set a March 1 cutoff point for cities to do that. Cities across the state have been scrambling to plug all their redevelopment money into projects and various funds and solutions, but Oakland has done nothing of the kind, with decision-makers arguing instead for caution.

    "The problem is, there's not terribly much flesh on the bones" of Brown's proposal, said Walter Cohen, director of Oakland's Community and Economic Development Agency. "It's a broad concept at this time."

    Numerous questions, legal, legislative and otherwise, have gone unanswered in Sacramento, including whether the state even has the authority to do as Brown suggests, Cohen said.

    At Thursday's briefing, City Administrator Dan Lindheim said there is "still no clear understanding of what will come out of the state. The people working on this up there don't really understand redevelopment. They see it as borrowing money and paying it down; they don't understand that this is a continuing effort. The model they have is underinformed."

    Meanwhile, Councilmember Desley Brooks (Eastmont-Seminary) said she fears Oakland is watching a fast-approaching deadline speed toward the city without doing enough to protect the city's money.

    "I don't see that we're in any different a position than when we first heard the governor would do this," Brooks said at Tuesday's council meeting. "We haven't seen any proposal come forth saying let's use this money while we have opportunity.

    "Redevelopment is our life blood. We can't just watch it go out the door."

    Lindheim said the city is "moving expeditiously to move forward on all projects" already planned out, and is examining strategies being tried out by other cities, but hasn't acted on them because it remains unclear what will hold water in the wake of Sacramento's final decision.

    Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan has openly decried the proposal altogether.

    "It is not as the governor has portrayed it," she said. "The proposal is really to take local money and use it to balance the state deficit. We do not want local money raided this way."

    Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.