Overcoming State Delay, 29 Palms At Last Breaks Ground On Project Phoenix

TWENTYNINE PALMS — The City of Twentynine Palms on Thursday broke ground on the first phase of Project Phoenix, its redevelopment project for the city’s downtown district that has been delayed for nearly a decade,
Project Phoenix was nearly choked out of existence by the State of California’s move more thant eight years ago to close out local redevelopment agencies. Because of the city’s commitment to the concept of rejuvenating its civic core, the fact that the effort was under way before the State of California took its redevelopment agency-killing action and the city’s willingness to litigate in the face of the State’s far greater resources and application of its authority, the project survived.
Project Phoenix was conceived as an undertaking by the Twentynine Palms Redevelopment Agency aimed at constructing a community center, a 250-seat theater, classrooms, a civic plaza, a park, a paseo, residential units, a wastewater treatment plant, and improvements to the downtown fire station. The project was put in jeopardy in 2011, however, when the legislature passed AB X1 26 and AB X1 27, which shuttered more than 400 municipal and county redevelopment agencies up and down the state. The state sought to reroute redevelopment money to law enforcement and education efforts in that closure.
Twentynine Palms, however, intrepidly pushed ahead with the project, based upon Twentynine Palms City Attorney A. Patrick Muñoz’s assertion that the project had been initiated prior to AB XI 26 and AB XI 27 going into effect. According to Muñoz, the state law ending redevelopment function is trumped by federal securities regulations, meaning the money the Twentynine Palms
Redevelopment Agency bonded for in 2011 must be utilized only for the purpose that bondholders were told the money would be applied toward.
The city then used the locally composed bond oversight board that was formed as a consequence of the state legislation to recommit the bond money to the Phoenix project. Subsequently, however, the state Department of Finance used its authority to disallow the recommitment. In response, the city appealed and when that appeal was turned down, filed legal action in Sacramento Superior Court, the venue where the legislation required any litigation pertaining to cities’ use of redevelopment money had to be filed. The case was heard by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael P. Kenny.
Muñoz asserted in filings with the Sacramento Superior Court that the non-taxable bonds issued in 2011 created specific obligations between the city, as the issuer, and the bond purchasers, and as such are enforceable obligations and any use of the money for a purpose other than what the city had specified in marketing the bonds to the bond buyers would constitute fraud.
The California Department of Finance in December 2013 told Kenny that the Twentynine Palms Redevelopment Agency, like several others, “rushed to encumber future tax increment revenues” ahead of its legislated demise in December 2011. The department alleged that in March 2011, Twentynine Palms “conceived, authorized, issued and sold” $12 million in tax allocation bonds for the Project Phoenix downtown development and an affordable housing plan without contracts to build or a definite plan for spending the proceeds.”
Ultimately, however, Kenny ruled against the Department of Finance in April 2014 and granted the petition for a writ of mandate on behalf for the city of Twentynine Palms as successor agency, allowing the city to utilize the bond money for the fulfillment of Project Phoenix. In June 2014, the Department of Finance filed an appeal of Kenny’s ruling.
The Department of Finance suffered multiple setbacks with regard to several cities’ efforts to control the spending of redevelopment agency money appropriated in 2011. On May 14, 2015, the department sent a letter to several cities, Twentynine Palms among them, announcing it would no longer oppose those cities’ moves to preserve their last remaining redevelopment agency projects.
As it is now formulated, the downtown rejuvenation project will cost $21 million and will establish on the property at Twentynine Palms Highway and Yucca Avenue a “pocket Park,” from which a paseo, or walkway, will wend to what is to become the Twentynine Palms Community Center, a cultural center and the new Joshua Tree National Park Visitor Center. Other elements of the project include specific infrastructure and utility improvements.
The first phase of the undertaking will involved the construction of sewage lines, leading from downtown businesses to a package treatment plant, and the undergrounding of utility lines. In this way, the project will begin the process of bringing Twentynine Palms into the 21st Century. At present, Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley are the only two of San Bernardino County’s municipalities which do not have sewers and wastewater treatment plants. Yucca Valley is now in the process of constructing the first phase of such a system. The sewage lines and the package treatment plant are Twentynine Palms first move toward creating such a facility.
By 2021, work on the project’s second phase, the construction of the community center, is to begin. By 2022, work should start on the national park visitor, to be followed by the initiation of the project stage relating to the cultural center.
At the groundbreaking, Mayor Joel Klink alluded to the state’s effort to strangle Project Phoenix in the crib before it could grow toward maturity.
“There were obstacles along the way,” he said, but remarked, “We did it, finally.”
Councilman Dan Mintz concurred, saying the project “was a long time coming, but it is finally getting started, and that’s what counts.”
Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith said the cultural center and visitors center will entail a venue that will allow for the display of artifacts, relating to the indigenous inhabitants of Twentynine Palms and Joshua Tree and the Morongo Valley who braved harsh elements for 10,000 years to survive. One of those collection of artifacts will be the Campbell Collection, a collection artifacts and audiovisual materials put together by the late Joseph Campbell relating to, among other things, comparative mythology, religious studies and Native American mythology.

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