A Revolting Redevelopment

Chandler's leaders want to transform their sleepy downtown into an "oasis for the affluent." No wonder the barrio is restless.

In the end, the Downtown Partnership hired Taliesen Architects, a firm founded by students of Frank Lloyd Wright, to design plans to transform downtown into an upscale "destination point" of theaters, restaurants, offices, shops, high-end housing and a large hotel.

Some Latinos say the "destination point" sketches, which cost $134,000, were designed for yuppies, not barrio residents who can ill afford microbreweries and expensive restaurants. The list of people who attended a Taliesen-run "visioning session" on the future of Chandler contained no Latino names.

All of this is not to suggest that every Latino in Chandler feels excluded from redevelopment plans. Several months ago, the partnership asked Ernie Serrano Jr., whose pioneer Latino family owns eight restaurants in the East Valley, to serve on the board of directors. Serrano says he's "satisfied" with the redesign, sees nothing racist or untoward about the way the partnership has treated barrio residents.

But Latino distrust was further fueled in July 1997, when Chandler police and federal immigration officials conducted a weeklong "joint operation" in south Chandler--apprehending dark-skinned Spanish speakers in search of illegal immigrants. Dark-skinned Spanish speakers who were American citizens were also apprehended, and they were among those who filed a $35 million federal lawsuit against the City of Chandler, alleging civil-rights abuses.

In legal papers, the city denies wrongdoing. But a report by Attorney General Grant Woods, commissioned by Mayor Jay Tibshraeny and released in November, suggests that the Chandler cops stopped cars without sufficient cause. Another investigation ordered by the city is due next month.

The raid fed the suspicions of some barrio residents, who figured the sweep was one poorly disguised step toward an ultimate goal of purging the downtown of Latinos, razing the barrio and carrying out redevelopment plans.

"It is simply not true that the raids were designed to get rid of Hispanics," says city spokesman Dave Bigos. "Our stance has been from the beginning that we have no direct knowledge of any Chandler police officer stopping anyone based on color of their skin or detaining anyone not in this country illegally. The lawsuit may prove differently. If it does, we'll deal with it at that point."

Bigos' statement seems to contradict the Woods report, which had been commissioned by the mayor.

M.R. Diaz, a Latino artist, lives in his grandmother's house in the barrio southeast of what's left of A.J. Chandler Park.

Look, says Diaz, it's this simple. Kerski and the partnership want to "redesign Mexicans out of south Chandler," says Diaz.

Diaz's barrio is not on Taliesen's plan, but he is still concerned that once an "entertainment complex" (described by Taliesen as "either an Ice Rink or Multi-Plex Movie Theatre Complex") is built in the neighborhood, the city will go after his house.

"Once they get the theater in, they won't want little houses," he says. "What they are looking for is an upscale downtown. The barrio won't fit."

In interviews, Kerski and city officials repeatedly deny such allegations. There was no connection between the raids and the downtown redevelopment, they say.

"I don't want to be painted with that brush," says Kerski. "I didn't do those raids. That was another part [the Police Department] of the city. They didn't come over here and consult with me and say look, we're planning to do this thing because it's going to be good for downtown redevelopment.

"They went off and did it on their own. If people in the community think that we had anything to do with it, it would be the last thing--if someone had come to me and said, 'Oh, we're going to do these raids,' I would have said, 'Maybe you should probably think about that again, or the way you're doing it.'

"I mean, you know, it didn't help us moving forward down here."
Joan Saba, who has lived in Chandler 44 years and is president of the partnership, is distressed by the allegations made by some Latinos.

"We've talked about downtown redevelopment from the day I came to Chandler," says Saba, whose husband manages the Saba's Western Wear store in Chandler. "But there are always a few who are self-serving who stop it, who are only concerned about their own good, not the whole.

"The thing that I do want to impress on you is that we have made great strides, and we've always had a harmonious community and homogenous community. These people who are trying to cause friction are just a very few. . . . There are people who don't want to see Chandler change. They want it to stay the same. There are not a lot, but they are always very vocal and they always get heard, and the hard-working people never get a voice.

"If our redevelopment doesn't happen now, we might as well scratch it."

Downtown Chandler was designed in the early 1900s by its founder, A.J. "Doc" Chandler, a Canadian veterinarian turned resort hotelier, real estate developer, cotton magnate, irrigation tycoon and ostrich importer. Doc Chandler also built the elegant Mission-Revival style San Marcos resort, with its shaded colonnade that led from the hotel into the downtown square. It was designed by architect Arthur B. Benton.

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