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Swalwell bill aims to help cities that lost RDAs

California cities that saw economic development projects sidelined or shelved when the state dissolved their redevelopment authorities would compete more easily for federal grants to fund those projects, under a new bill from Rep. Eric Swalwell.

Swalwell news conference 11-26-2013 (photo by Josh Richman)Swalwell, D-Pleasanton, held a news conference Tuesday morning at a huge empty lot along Post Street in Fremont’s Centerville area. A sprawling mixed-use “Artist Walk” development had been planned for the site, but tanked after state lawmakers and the governor did away with local redevelopment authorities in 2011 and seized their assets to help balance the state’s budget.

“There’s a reason we only see buildings in artists’ renderings and not in reality,” Swalwell said. “Localities can no longer raise adequate funds for redevelopment…. And it is my hope today that the federal government can fix it.”

Swalwell’s H.R. 3518, the “Restarting Local Economies Act of 2013,” doesn’t allocate any new federal funding. Rather, it changes rules for the Economic Development Administration’s Economic Adjustment Assistance program, which provides competitive grants for local redevelopment projects if they meet specific criteria related to challenges to their economy.

Swalwell’s bill would include the closure of a government entity – such as a redevelopment agency – as a specific example of an economic challenge to a region, letting California localities more easily compete for these grants.

“I hope we can do our part to make things a little bit easier,” he said, noting projects like the Artist Walk development would create jobs not only in construction but also in the businesses that could locate there.

But for now, it’s “welcome to Centerville, welcome to an empty lot,” quipped Fremont Mayor Bill Harrison. “We need to get people to work, we need affordable housing.”

Harrison said Fremont in the past used redevelopment authority funding to do grade improvement projects that cleared the way for BART’s extension into Santa Clara County, and to improve the Niles Town Plaza around that district’s historic train station.

Union City Mayor Carol Dutra-Vernaci said an easier path to federal grants could help her city complete its intermodal station district project in the area around its BART station.

Because this bill would have special meaning for California, it’s unclear how it’ll play with the rest of the Republican-controlled House. Swalwell said he hasn’t yet begun lining up co-sponsors even amid California’s delegation.

“I’ve got my work cut out for me,” he said. “But whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat in California, you represent cities that suffered with the loss of their redevelopment authorities. This is going to be my year-end push, to reach out to colleagues on this issue.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.