Wednesday, June 30, 2004

We had to destroy the village in order to save it

It seems that we don't have a monopoly on half-baked redevelopment schemes here in western Pennsylvania. Officials in Ardmore, a Philadelphia suburb, want to create a transit-oriented development district. In so much as they want to encourage high-density, pedestrian-friendly development, this is a great idea. But it's not the ends but the means that befoul this project. Officials are proposing using eminent domain to acquire and demolish several buildings in the town's business district. Sound familiar, Pittsburghers?

There is one legitimate reason for governments to invoke eminent domain to acquire private property: the construction of public works or public buildings like highways and schools. But using the power of government to acquire property from one private party merely to transfer or sell it to another private party--in this case, to build an "urban shopping village"--is an abuse of government power and reeks of fascism. (It is, unfortunately, sanctioned by state redevelopment law.) You'll recall that in Pittsburgh, the Urban Redevelopment Authority has threatened to use eminent domain Downtown, and is currently in a legal battle with the owner of the adult Garden Theater on the North Side, who has refused to sell to the URA and thus is holding up the Federal North redevelopment project. The URA has spent a half-million dollars in legal fees; meanwhile, the URA-controlled Federal Street and North Avenue remain blighted.

The bottom line is this: Government-driven redevelopments projects rarely if ever succeed. Pittsburghers need look no further than the Hill District, Allegheny Center and East Liberty. And Pittsburgh is not alone. Many American cities have neighborhoods that were destroyed by urban renewal projects during the middle and latter parts of the last century. The projects accelerated urban decline; they did not arrest it. The fact that urban renewal is migrating to the suburbs is ironic yet still tragic.


Blogger fester said...

Using a couple of Pittsburgh examples of reasonably successful government led redevelopments I would have to offer Washington Landings, Crawford Square and the probable success of the Nine Mile Run/Summerset at Frick Park housing redevelopment. I think that there are a few critical differences between the failures that you mention and these successes. First, all the successes took place on marginal land that no one else had any economic use for (abandoned rendering plant, abandoned/structurally unsafe housing, and a slag dump) versus economically functioning (albiet at a less than "pretty" and "respectable" level) buildings and spaces. Secondly, I know the Nine Mile Run project had a massive amount of public buy-in that was built over a six year time period. I know that East Mall in East Liberty was imposed, Civic Arena was imposed, Allegheny Center was imposed by elite opinion and not community push. Finally, the developments that are working were to fill a real need instead of seeking marginal upgrades.

I think that the differentiation is that the current generation of successful projects has resulted from a more collaborate mindset than the diseasters of the command and control 50s-70s.

With all of this said, I still agree with you, the most clearly legitimate use of eminant domain usage is to acquire land/buildings for clearly and distinctly public purposes. Direct transfers to private owners of the profit streams are not the highest or best use of this type of power.

11:03 PM


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