Friday, Dec. 12, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Clark County commissioners signed off on a $7.6 million plan to buy and demolish 250 apartments at Buena Vista Springs without knowing that dozens of people live in the complex.
All the details about how far the money would go and what would rise from the rubble were not laid out for the commission.
Weeks after approving the plan, Chairman Rory Reid said he didn’t know people were living on the property. Neither did Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani.
She said she may have voted differently if she had known about the tenants. “We should have been told there were people living there,” Giunchigliani said. “We were not given complete information.”
She and Commissioner Susan Brager said they also thought the money would stretch far enough to build something new on the site.
It won’t, according to the project’s director, North Las Vegas Assistant City Manager Kenny Young.
No one is alleging there was any intent to deceive, but there were missed opportunities to clarify and fully explain the plan before the vote.
In his pitch to commissioners, Clark County official Michael Pawlak described the apartments, near Carey Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard, as “vacant” and “boarded-up.”
When the Sun later asked him about the tenants, Pawlak deferred to Young and other North Las Vegas staff members, adding that he understood vacant apartments would be demolished under the plan but apartments with tenants would be spared.
The commission unanimously approved tearing down 250 of the apartments as part of a joint county-North Las Vegas project. Weeks earlier, the North Las Vegas City Council voted in favor of the plan. Two council members opposed the project, saying they thought the money should be spent on helping people into housing.
The county is expected to pitch in $3 million; North Las Vegas, $4.6 million.
Like Pawlak’s presentation, the written plan makes no mention of the people living at Buena Vista.
And more have been moving in.
The plan is the only large demolition project to come out of $54 million the federal government gave Southern Nevada in September for helping neighborhoods hit by the foreclosure crisis.
Officials working on proposals for spending the money noted that they had to rush the plans. Area municipalities had a Dec. 1 deadline for submitting proposals to the Housing and Urban Development Department. The federal agency has until mid-January to approve or reject the proposals.
If approved, the Buena Vista demolition would be the second blow to the North Las Vegas stretch of hardpan in a little more than a year. In late 2007, HUD moved about 800 people out of 230 apartments, the largest relocation of federally subsidized tenants in Las Vegas Valley history. Poor conditions at Buena Vista forced that move, the agency said then.
But now an estimated 50 apartments are occupied anew, some with new coats of paint and repairs, according to tenants. They are not subsidized by the same federal program and most appear to be working families.
Reid said although he didn’t know about the tenants, “I’d assume that if this was going to be done, we would have to take their property rights into account — and just have decency.”
Commissioner Tom Collins, who wasn’t keen on the project at the Nov. 18 meeting, said he figures the county and North Las Vegas will find ways to relocate the residents if that’s necessary.
Asked about this, Young vacillated between claims that Buena Vista tenants would be untouched by the plan and that they would be moved.
First he said each building on Buena Vista’s sprawling 20 acres would be treated as “a separate parcel.” Some are facing foreclosure and could be bought and demolished with the federal money, leaving behind the ones with tenants, he said.
Then he allowed that some tenants may need to be relocated, although the plan included no estimates on how many or how much that would cost. He added that the project may prove untenable if people keep moving in, because the cost of relocating them could become too high. But then, flustered, he said the issue was “a small detail compared to the overall project.”
“It’s immaterial,” Young said.
He also said he didn’t know how many people were living at Buena Vista.
The owner of the property, Creative Choice West, a Florida-based company, did not answer repeated requests for information.
Other details, too, weren’t publicly presented to commissioners.
At the November meeting, Pawlak told commissioners a “public services campus” would rise from the rubble at Buena Vista, possibly including a school for young children. A smaller site nearby called Buena Vista Springs II would also be torn down, replaced by 50 affordable apartments for seniors. Pawlak said the campus would “augment what we already have in the area.”
Neither he nor the written plan indicated that the immediate area features a Head Start center, an Urban League community center and a Clark County Social Service office.
Giunchigliani said at the meeting that she “thought this was for housing, not for a campus.”
After learning later about the Head Start center and the other services, she said the plan “was not fully vetted” and may not even be based on what the neighborhood needs.
Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, whose district includes Buena Vista, said before and during the meeting that he backed the plan. Just before the vote was cast, he called it “an opportunity to change the entire landscape.”
Earlier, he said any other consideration — losing affordable housing through the demolition, for example — would be simply “missing the forest for the trees.”
At the same time, he emphasized that he didn’t want “some blight to be torn down and fenced off for another 50 years.”
But it’s also unclear how that will be avoided.
Young said North Las Vegas has been talking to private foundations about funding the construction of the proposed community campus.
“I’m quite confident there is money in place to build,” he said, but he wouldn’t provide more details.
That wasn’t included in the presentation to commissioners, however. Commissioner Brager said she and her colleagues “would have reacted to the idea of private money being involved.”
Meanwhile, Buena Vista resident Kalani Byrd, 22, and her neighbors are left feeling overlooked and wondering what’s going to happen to them. One of them is her aunt, Gail Sheppard, who lives several buildings down, across a small road that snakes north through Buena Vista’s acres.
Standing in front of Byrd’s apartment, you can look across the road and see shells of apartments that presumably would be demolished under the Clark County-North Las Vegas plan. Plywood boards cover what once were windows of the homes of hundreds.
Sheppard and Byrd said they don’t understand why so much money would be spent to buy the property and tear down its buildings.
Byrd has lived in the neighborhood most of her life. This is her second stint at Buena Vista. She and Sheppard have other relatives who live nearby. Sheppard works nights at the Stratosphere and her four teenagers cross Carey Avenue most days to play basketball and do homework at the Urban League center.
“I don’t want them to tear down the buildings,” she said. “Everybody I know is here or nearby. They’ve started fixing the places up around here. They should just upgrade them.”
Byrd piped in. “If you want people to take care of the place, then just make it nice and everyone will feel good about living here.”