California’s redevelopment agencies may be dead, but using the power of government to take private property, by eminent domain if need be, to profit the chosen few in the name of “economic development” is alive and well.
The ghost of Kelo haunts Anaheim, in the not so cleverly disguised form of the ARC or Anaheim Rapid Connection fixed guideway, a streetcar that transports resort visitors and employees at public expense.
As it turns out, this public project runs over some private property.
Not only has the Anaheim City Council voted 3-2 for a project while blasting past the Mayor’s objections that should have created concern, the Orange County Transportation Authority has the nerve to call this a mandate from voters who demanded this type of project for the benefit of all when approving Measure M. The OCTA board voted Monday morning to move forward with the project while Directors John Moorlach, Jeff Lalloway and Matt Harper opposed the boondoggle.
Republican power-hitter Jon Fleishman already called this “subsidizing the Mouse,” a view shared by transportation expert Randall O’Toole. Over at the Antiplanner, O’Toole called it “a massive subsidy to Disney,” pointing out that “Disney is reportedly enthused about the project, since otherwise it might have to provide its own buses.”
The (flying) elephant in the room is the public funding to mitigate the traffic impacts caused by one of the most profitable corporate entities in the world. Worse, the plans quietly call for the “taking” of private property, which in turn picks the losers and winners in this high stakes game. Businesses impacted — either voluntarily through the process of negotiation or by force through eminent domain — will be offered fair market value for their property, but the law does not really provide for lost future earnings.
The flip side of this evil game of SimCity is that the property left adjacent to the newly created gap in the motel grin along the right of way on Harbor Boulevard will very likely skyrocket in value. While we may debate whether hotel guests will use the streetcar while carting luggage and children, there is no question of the value in offering guests the convenience of right-outside-the-front-door access to the pedestrian bridge taxpayers are funding, to get those streetcar passengers up and over busy Harbor Blvd into Disney’s gates, where they are welcomed with open arms and open cash registers.
As it turns out, the streetcar does not deliver passengers directly into Disney’s front yard. After all, Disney has uses for Disney’s land, which apparently do not include housing the streetcar nor shouldering the liability of it on their property.
Instead, the streetcar drops its passengers on the east side of Harbor Blvd, and thus we see the need to acquire some of the most expensive dirt in the real estate business.
The motels, restaurant and one office building that are seen by decision makers as nothing but blocks of color in an aerial photo, represent the jobs of about 235 Americans. For now. Yet we will celebrate jobs created by the streetcar as “economic development” while the Anaheim City Council majority stands beside the OCTA board smiling for the ribbon cutting and congratulating themselves on how they have served their constituents.
Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray has appeared at the OCTA board repeatedly, working to convince us that the streetcar will bring prosperity to the entire resort area, even famously admitting within earshot of Voice of OC’s Adam Elmahrek that getting tourists' cars off the road lets Disney open their long-anticipated third gate.
The truth is that the properties most likely to benefit are those immediately adjacent to the station stops. Property outside the magical equation of the 500 to 1,000 feet that the average pedestrian is willing to walk between destinations are left behind like small prairie towns that were missed by the railroad. Those small towns sent emissaries to sweet-talk railroad executives, offering free right of way, providing a station, even naming the town for those executives. Yes, I am talking about you, Fullerton.
Following a public challenge to ask staff what exactly does sit between Clementine Street and Harbor Boulevard, OCTA Director and County Supervisor Shawn Nelson asked Public Works Director Natalie Meeks to enlighten those in attendance at the board meeting.
Meeks’ vague reply offered little hint beyond a need to acquire right of way, as though referring to an open dirt field to be picked up for a pittance. Her failure to disclose the visitor services, tax generating functions and employment of those small businesses inconveniently sitting on her right of way was typical of a project mired in secrecy and deflection.
Director Nelson’s query about whether these property owners were aware of their impending doom matched Voice of OC’s Adam Elmahrek’s interview of Meeks after the meeting. In both cases their questions were met by nonspecific response, mumbling something about not having actual parcel numbers, as though what they want to do is still some pipe dream to be planned in more detail someday.
A view of the images used for their planning documents indicates a fairly precise record with little doubt of whose financial future is bulldozer fodder and who gets the golden ticket of increased property values. Should Natalie Meeks really not have their parcel numbers, she might get a hold of me. I have them and the names of the property owners associated with the lots.
Ultimately the people of Orange County, who are paying for this, are getting a raw deal, losing gas taxes to a system that benefits those with connections to the Masters of the Universe. For those unlucky few whose livelihoods are on the chopping block, they pay twice: once for the taxes, once in the loss of the property they have worked to improve. Even those of us who believe that the expansion of the resort’s business model serves to benefit all of us in the way of increased tax revenues cannot help but feel just plain dirty as the details of this project come to light.
Staff at the city of Anaheim and OCTA have a clear stake in moving this project forward. There are no prestigious awards given to transportation executives for the project they did not build because they determined it was wasteful. Career bureaucrats make and break their resumes on these big, boondoggle budgetbusters, gathering at their annual conferences to compare the size of their staffs and associated budgets as a measure of their worth in the marketplace.
They are supposed to have that ambition reined in by the elected leaders sent to represent us on these regional nongovernmental organizations, where money is spent faster than Washington can borrow it from China. Those leaders in turn are sandwiched between public employee unions fighting to keep their jobs pushing the pencils and counting the beans of the big project that sends their boss to the annual conference and the private-sector building trades eager for jobs creating the big, sexy project using monopoly money from some fairy godmother named the Federal Transit Administration.
Throw in the corporate interests who want to maximize their property values while avoiding the cost of transporting their own paying customers and perhaps taking out the competitor next door they never liked anyway and you have a lot of special interests bending the ears and filling the campaign coffers of those we suspect stopped looking out for us long ago. The ARC streetcar project pretty much proves it.