Victorville’s plans for reviving its Old Town have gotten more ambitious since the city council addressed that issue 18 months ago.
About 1,600 acres more ambitious, to be precise.
In August 2021, the city council agreed to form a Community Revitalization and Investment Authority Board to pay for its ambitious plan, a restoration of what was once the city’s thriving business district.
Similar to redevelopment, which the state eliminated 12 years ago, CRIA creates special districts that, in effect, pay for their own upgrade. The program, which the state approved in 2015, gives cities and counties a way to undertake major projects – like reviving Old Town Victorville without having to raise taxes.
The board is made up of Mayor Debra Jones and council members Elizabeth Becerra and Leslie Irving, along with two members from the general public: Jennifer Neri, a community organizer and activist, and Steve Blech, owner of the Santa Fe Trading Co., a Native American-themed craft store in Old Town.
Victorville’s CRIA board is the first to be formed in the program’s seven-year history, according to the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, the agency that administers the program.
As properties are developed in the designated area, their value goes up and they’re appraised at a higher value. In time, that generates more tax revenue, which is reinvested in the designated area by the board.
By law, the board can remain in place for 45 years before it’s renewed. During that time, the panel may authorize infrastructure improvements, approve low and moderate-income housing development and provide assistance to businesses.
It may also give loans or grants to property owners or tenants so they can rehabilitate their properties.
As an added incentive for businesses to locate in Old Town, the city has waived all development impact fees in its CRIA zone. The city also hired Harris & Associates, a Concord-based research firm with an Ontario office, to help it get through the complicated process of putting a CRIA district in place.
CRIA regulations require that at least 25 percent of the revenue generated within one of its districts must be used to develop low-income housing.
To be designated a CRIA district, yearly income must be at least 80 percent below the state median. Also unemployment must be three percent higher, and the crime rate five percent higher than the state medians, and the area must have decaying commercial and residential structures.
There was no better way for Victorville to revive its former Old Town – something the city has been trying to since at least the mid-1990s – than CRIA, said Sue Jones, Victorville spokesperson.
“We didn’t want to raise taxes, so CRIA was our best option,” said Sue Jones, Victorville’s public information officer. “There’s no other mechanism to do it with, since we don’t have redevelopment anymore.
“Once we decide to form a CRIA district, the idea took off.”
But not without some change along the way, including expanding the borders on the original CRIA district by five times its proposed size. The expanded area is mostly undeveloped parcels meant for residential development, with only a small portion zoned for mixed use, according to Jones.
The plan the city adopted 18 months ago called for the redevelopment of a 400-acre parcel bordered by Interstate 15 on the north and Mojave Drive on the south.
A portion of Victor Valley High School was to have bordered the district’s west end, while a combination of 11th Street, Stoddard Wells Road and the Mojave River were the property’s proposed eastern border.
However, one month after that plan was adopted, Gov. Newsom signed SB-780 into law, which strengthened the state’s economic development programs.
SB-780 makes it easier to establish CRIA districts by requiring 70 percent of an area to meet CRIA’s criteria, down from 80 percent.
It also allows CRIAs to include residential development in CRIA areas under certain conditions. That prompted Victorville to increase the original district to 2,000 acres to allow for more residential development.
That expansion, which the CRIA board approved Feb. 6, means the city must restart a series of three hearings on its CRIA proposal before the new plan can be approved. That will slow things down, but it’s a delay city officials are willing to put up with.
“The larger the property, the more property tax revenue it will generate,” Jones said.
Victorville has asked San Bernardino County if it would like to reinvest some of the property tax revenue it will receive from the CRIA zone back into the Old Town revitalization effort, since the county would benefit from a revitalized Old Town.
County officials have not responded to that request
With or without the county’s help, Victorville is fully committed to reviving Old Town, which is still home to some businesses and housing but is badly in need of repair.
The area has a “significant” homeless population, along with widespread drug and alcohol abuse and some prostitution, according to the city’s Old Town Specific Plan.
Also, a series of fires during the last few years have forced the demolition of several abandoned buildings to eliminate safety risks, leaving the area with multiple vacant lots, the report states.
Victorville’s Old Town desperately needs to be brought back to life, not just for the city [pop. 135,000], but the High Desert, said Don Brown, president of Lee & Associates Victorville.
“It’s a very impoverished area, but we know it can be brought back,” said Brown, a High Desert commercial broker and Victorville resident since the 1980s. “We’ve seen it happen in San Diego and Claremont, among other places.”
Old Town was hurt by several factors, among them the arrival in 1986 of The Mall of Victor Valley near Interstate 15 and Bear Valley Road, according to Brown.
“Probably the last time it was really thriving was about 30 years ago,” Brown said. “It needs to be brought back.”