Beware the Government Bulldozer

John Tierney offers an excellent critique of eminent domain from a planning perspective, using Pittsburgh as the model not to replicate:

Pittsburgh has been the great pioneer in eminent domain ever since its leaders razed 80 buildings in the 1950’s near the riverfront park downtown. They replaced a bustling business district with Gateway Center, an array of bland corporate towers surrounded by the sort of empty plazas that are now considered hopelessly retrograde by urban planners trying to create street life. […] Bulldozers razed the Lower Hill District, the black neighborhood next to downtown that was famous for its jazz scene (and now famous mostly as a memory in August Wilson’s plays). The city built a domed arena that was supposed to be part of a cultural “acropolis,” but the rest of the project died. Today, having belatedly realized that downtown would benefit from people living nearby, the city is trying to entice them back to the Hill by building homes there. In the 1960’s, the bulldozers moved into East Liberty, until then the busiest shopping district outside downtown. Some of the leading businessmen there wanted to upgrade the neighborhood, so hundreds of small businesses and thousands of people were moved to make room for upscale apartment buildings, parking lots, housing projects, roads and a pedestrian mall. I was working there in a drugstore whose owners cursed the project, and at first I thought they were just behind the times. But their worst fears were confirmed. The shopping district was destroyed. The drugstore closed, along with the department stores, movie theaters, office buildings and most other businesses. You’d think a fiasco like that would have humbled Pittsburgh’s planners, but they just went on.

Read the whole thing, because there’s a lot more. And be sure to check out this article by my colleague Geoff Segal, who warns that government spending reform is essential to keep revenue-hungry politicos from wielding the eminent domain hammer:

So next time your local government is strapped for cash, rather than fight a nasty tax battle, they have another option. Take your home or your business for “economic development.” Thanks to the Supreme Court, this now means simply “raising additional tax revenues.” Soon, anyone’s house could be in jeopardy to pay for new and expanding services. […] We need to rethink just how our various levels of government interact with citizens, taxpayers, and property owners. Government has “sprawled” into new areas — creating agencies and new services at every turn. Over the years, a number of “vital” programs have been expanded or added to the list of “core” services provided by government. I don’t want to sound cold-blooded, but if it’s between my house and a new government program, I’m going to pick my house every day of the week.

Right on, Geoff.