A Revolting Redevelopment

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.

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Terry Greene Sterling