A Revolting Redevelopment

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

The area adjacent to the retail center should eventually be cleared for market rate housing. Downtown lacks any significant market rate housing. This is too valuable and important land and should be dedicated to high density, market rate residential. No Downtown in the United States, no matter how small, has been revitalized without a residential population with a high disposable income. Even Downtown Phoenix has found this to be true and is in the process of developing several market rate gated communities adjacent to its central core. These residents are critical to the support of certain retail types and also provide a core of users for restaurants. --a draft Business Plan and Implementation Strategy, Downtown Chandler Community Partnership

Suzi and Jose Ortiz were grandparents before they could finally afford to buy their first home four years ago. They chose a small house on California Street, in a Chandler barrio. It's a short walk from the historic downtown and A.J. Chandler Park, which straddles Arizona Avenue, the main north-south drag through town.

Inside the Ortiz house, wooden floors are polished, the walls freshly painted and decorated with dried floral arrangements, religious santos, family pictures, garlands of homegrown red chilis.

In a small plot on one side of the house, Suzi grows more tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, chilis, corn, garlic, red onions, beans and nepales than she can use, so she shares them with her neighbors. She has landscaped the rest of her garden with fruit trees, masses of yellow daisies, bright red hollyhocks.

"A small home, but one that is full of love," says Suzi, who has been a homemaker all her adult life.

Now she wonders if her beloved home will be condemned and knocked down by the City of Chandler as part of a controversial downtown redevelopment plan.

Suzi Ortiz says rumors swirl through the barrio. She doesn't know whom to believe. Because Suzi does not speak English, she cannot understand what goes on in public meetings. But her neighbors attend public meetings and report that city officials have said there are no plans to redevelop her neighborhood. Other neighbors tell her not to trust the city, that of course the barrio will eventually be razed in the name of redevelopment, so rich people can live next to the fancy new downtown that is planned.

"I feel a lot of insecurity," says Ortiz in Spanish. "One day I have hope that all will be well, another day I worry they will knock the house down."

Suzi Ortiz isn't the only one who worries about Chandler's zeal for downtown redevelopment in a large area that includes many Latino residences.

The city is aggressively pushing for its first phase of redevelopment of the downtown, which wraps in a U-shape around A.J. Chandler Park on Arizona Avenue. The city has designated a large redevelopment district that cuts an irregular swath from McQueen Road to the San Marcos Golf Course and from Ray Road to Pecos Road.

This makes some Latinos in the nearby barrios nervous--the barrios sit in the redevelopment district near downtown, the first area slated for renovation. In fact, the city has set aside $1.6 million this year to buy old buildings and resell them to developers.

At public meetings, city officials repeatedly said they do not plan to destroy the barrios, but often used weasel words like "at this point in time" or "no current plans."

And some Latinos have little faith in the city for other reasons.
In the first place, the city hired Michael Kerski as its redevelopment coordinator. In 1996, Kerski quit his job as executive director of the now-bankrupt Greater Hartford Architectural Conservancy in Hartford, Connecticut, to become executive director of the Downtown Chandler Community Partnership, a nonprofit corporation.

A few months after Kerski made the move, the Connecticut attorney general sued him for alleged misuse of money that belonged to the conservancy, a nonprofit designed to salvage historic Hartford buildings destined for the wrecking ball. Kerski is also the target of an ongoing criminal investigation by the Connecticut State's Attorney's Office (see accompanying story).

Chandler officials and citizens picked Kerski from among 25 applicants for the $54,135-a-year job because his experience and drive seemed fitting for a city that had been trying--and failing--to fix up a decaying city center for decades.

Under Kerski's guidance, the partnership claims it sought input for the downtown redesign from Latino residents. Latinos figured they were part of the soul of historic Chandler, having lived in a barrio near downtown since the town was founded nearly 100 years ago. Some Latinos suggested redevelopment should include a downtown mercado. Others wanted a job-training center. Still others suggested an interactive high-tech museum sponsored by Motorola and Intel, which have plants in Chandler.

But several Latino leaders believe the city made up its mind about what the downtown should look like long before it sought input from Latinos.

A marketing and merchandising report commissioned by the city and released in late 1996 gives credence to their concerns. "Downtown Chandler could become an oasis for the affluent," the report says. Then it notes that "shoppers are uneasy about their personal safety and security there [downtown] primarily because of the apparent poverty just beyond its borders and its proximity to the day labor buildings and their clientele."

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.

At the heart of the square was A.J. Chandler Park, shaded by enormous eucalyptus, pepper and palm trees. The park was bordered by streets lined with shops, eateries and banks. Directly to the south of the commercial area, in "south Chandler," a barrio sprouted up.

With the help of irrigation and electrically pumped groundwater, Chandler became a prosperous agricultural town, separate and apart from Phoenix, some 20 miles to the northwest.

Doc Chandler asked Frank Lloyd Wright to design a second San Marcos hotel. The new hotel was to utilize Wright's "organic" style and look as though it were part of the nearby Sonoran desert. Wright drew numerous plans for Doc Chandler, but the Depression hit and none of the Wright drawings was ever transformed into bricks and mortar.

(Kerski says he first learned of the Wright-Chandler connection when he was studying architecture at the University of Wisconsin. Since Wright's drawings for Chandler still exist, it seemed only natural to ask Wright's successor firm, Taliesin Architects, to draw plans for the new downtown, he says.)

Time passed. As Chandler grew--its population ballooned to about 143,500 in 1996--the downtown lost its panache. The nucleus of the downtown, A.J. Chandler Park, was bisected by Highway 87. The park's beautiful shade trees were cut down. Cool grass was replaced by concrete, making what was left of the park into a broiling heat island in the summer. Certain areas of the downtown have become transient havens, the concrete stained with beer and human urine.

Most merchants abandoned ship, and only a few old enterprises struggled to keep their storefronts open. Mannequins in cowboy garb still smile out the window of Saba's.

A few doors down--in a building built by Doc Chandler's son-in-law--Pete Jensen toils at the family-owned Boston Shoe Shop, a shoe repair and tack store that is more than 60 years old. Today, Jensen is the only person tending the dusty shop, manning the 50-year-old machines that stitch broken sandal straps and gashed saddles. Jensen says his business has been designated as a historic enterprise, so it can remain downtown. But Jensen doesn't know how long he can hold out.

As downtown Chandler deteriorated, vacant spaces were frequently rented by Latino shopkeepers catering to residents of the nearby barrios.

Rosalia Garcia, for instance, is a retired teacher who opened South Chandler Video on Boston Avenue two years ago. At Garcia's store, Spanish speakers can rent videos like El Corrido de Santa Amalia and Los Tres Animales. They can buy candy and pickles and snacks. If they are in need of office services, Garcia translates, sends faxes, sells photocopies. She won't say how much she pays for rent, but says she knows she won't be able to afford upscale prices once the downtown is redesigned.

". . . my clientele works as housekeepers, construction workers, landscapers and babysitters," says Garcia. "They work in restaurants; they do the cheap labor.

"Our clientele is not the clientele redevelopment people are looking for."
Garcia had hoped that the new downtown plans would include a mercado, or open-air market, for Latino merchants.

"What's wrong with having our wares hanging in front of the stores? What could be more colorful for tourists than Hispanic goods and Hispanic stores?"

When Michael Kerski arrived in Chandler 20 months ago, he did not share Rosalia Garcia's vision. A draft of the partnership's Business Plan and Implementation Strategy, released shortly after Kerski arrived, offered a much different point of view.

"Downtown will be the geographic center of Chandler, especially with new growth to the south," toward the barrio, the report says. ". . . the overall appearance of Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods is a major competitive disadvantage over even nearby sites in Chandler."

So, will low-end retailers--and their clients--be welcome in the new downtown?

"Here's the problem you have in this downtown," Kerski says. "You have retailers who don't take retailing seriously. Or won't try and expand their market.

"I mean in America a good segment of the small retailers are hurting. I don't care whether they are Hispanic or any other origin. There is a major shift to big retailers in America. That's why we're not focusing on retail down here. If the retailer is down here and the property owner is happy with rent he's paying, I don't really care. But if there is a vacant building sitting down here, we're going to do whatever we can to get that space filled up, because it's not generating any sales tax for the city and it doesn't look good to have vacant windows."

Says Rosalia Garcia: "It's pretty evident to me that businesses they don't want will be moved.

"It's only a matter of time."

Ogdon Rico is the pastor of the Latin American Church of the Nazarene just across the street from Suzi Ortiz's house.

Rico, who also served as a school psychologist for Chandler public schools, says he has been pastoring in the barrio for 25 years.

"Twenty-five years ago, we were very comfortable here," he says during an interview in his church. "Now we are no longer comfortable. We feel pushed, pushed, pushed."

Rico has watched the barrio change, grow poorer.
"With Chandler's growth, those that have, have more. Those that don't have, have less. Most of the people who find themselves on the outside looking in are in this neighborhood."

Like Rico himself.
Rico recalls being astonished when he learned that a huge "entertainment complex" would be built next to his church as part of downtown redevelopment. It's not that he minded the movie theater being there, it's just that city officials--and Kerski--had not informed him of their plans.

Rico says he was heartened when the downtown redevelopment officials sought input from the barrio. He thought Latino ideas for a "diverse downtown" would be included in the final plans. There were meetings in his church. City officials took notes.

"Downtown should have an identity for all of us," he says. "But there is nothing in the downtown plan that shows what we wanted. . . . Our people have a sense of being left out of the process of decision making . . . and they are the people who are going to be affected the most."

Rico says redevelopment officials say there is still plenty of "opportunity for dialogue."

"And I say, 'Look, I've been dialoguing for 30 years. Let's move beyond dialogue.'"

Still, Rico hasn't lost hope.
"Personally, I have a choice," he says. "I could become cynical and pessimistic, but I choose to remain positive about working with people. There are people at the city I can work with."

Like Phill Westbrooks, a Chandler native of Latino and African-American descent who was elected to the city council four years ago. As a kid, Westbrooks was a student at the school where Rico was the counselor. Westbrooks used to shine shoes downtown, right across the street from A.J. Chandler Park.

The July 1997 raid caused him to feel "sorrow" for those who were apprehended, "even if it was legal," he says.

"I felt it was kind of degrading that you can be treated in a certain manner because of your race," says Westbrooks.

"I have personally felt, seen, heard, experienced racism both as an African American and as a Hispanic. . . . It's not a good feeling; it makes you feel like you are powerless, you are less than other individuals, and it kind of chips away at your self-esteem. I've experienced those things firsthand."

And Westbrooks understands how people in the barrio feel.
"From their standpoint, yeah, I guess if I was a downtown resident and I saw this gentleman [Kerski] make all these plans, to some it might be called progress, but to me it might be called invasion," says Westbrooks.

"I think the perception of the Mexican community may be there is a conspiracy to move them out because it's impacting them the most," he says.

"So the city needs to rebuild trust."

Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437 or online at tgreene@newtimes.com

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