Oct 16, 2007 (The Sacramento Bee - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- No one questions Kevin Johnson's heart or his dedication to the Oak Park neighborhood where he was raised. But some Oak Park residents question whether the former NBA All-Star has the ability to follow through on his ambitious development plans to revitalize the neighborhood.
As The Bee's investigative report published Sunday revealed, Johnson owns more than three dozen properties in Oak Park. Some are well maintained, but others have fallen into serious disrepair.
The Bee reporters who reviewed city property records, code enforcement files, permits and police and fire reports found 37 properties owned by organizations founded by Johnson, including Kynship Development, St. HOPE Development, St. HOPE Academy and Kevin M. Johnson Living Trust.
Over the last 10 years, the city has cited Johnson properties on 73 occasions. Simple things such as cleaning up trash and cutting weeds have been neglected. One property had to be torn down. Johnson tenants have complained about raw sewage bubbling into backyards and mice. In his client's defense, Johnson's lawyer says in the demolition case Johnson was caught in a dispute between city preservation and code enforcement officals and that the tenants who complained had not paid rent for months and were being evicted.
Johnson may have underestimated the difficulty of redevelopment; even experienced developers have trouble rebuilding in depressed inner cities.
Piecing together city lots takes more time and money than developing in the suburbs. Rehabbing historic houses is expensive. Landlords in low-income neighborhoods can't charge as much.
Despite the challenges and the problems uncovered, Johnson's overall Oak Park economic development record is mixed. His signature 40 Acres complex at 35th and Broadway has given Oak Park a handsome gateway. Anchored by a Starbucks coffeeshop, it contains the rebuilt Guild Theater, a book store, art gallery, barber shop and apartments. When it opened in 2003, many saw it as the catalyst for Oak Park renewal, and it has helped.
Local architect Ron Vrilakas, who is building a 10-unit loft complex in Oak Park, credits Johnson's 40 Acres with leading the way: "We would not have taken this risk we took had his project not gone first. ... It changes the perception of what Oak Park is."
But since 40 Acres was built, Johnson's attention has been diverted by his other passion, the charter school movement. He took over Sacramento High School in a very contentious fight in 2003. His St. HOPE Academy continues to run PS 7. He has even expanded his operation to another charter school in Harlem. Any of these school projects is enough to occupy one person's efforts full-time and more.
It appears that Johnson's Oak Park economic redevelopment interests have been placed on hold. That is appropriate. St. HOPE's educational ventures should be his first priority.
But Johnson can't afford to neglect his real estate holdings entirely. Neighborhoods suffer when homes go vacant and fall into disrepair or empty lots become dumping grounds.
If Johnson really cares about Oak Park, he must show it by maintaining the property he owns there.