Eminent Domain, Urban Renewal, & Smart Growth

The NYT offers a few glimpses of the slippery slope engendered by the SCOTUS’ Kelo decision:

In a suburb of Buffalo, a developer wants to knock down more than 300 homes to make way for a traditional-style town that he says he believes will alleviate blight. In Norwood, Ohio, three property owners are the lone holdouts against a developer’s plan to build shops and parking garages on the site where some of them have lived for more than 30 years. And in Brooklyn, recently converted lofts are in the path of a proposed basketball arena. In the week since the Supreme Court gave cities the right to buy out residences to foster economic development, homeowners across the country have been wondering whether they will be forced out to make way for malls, hotels and even other residences. Historically, eminent domain has applied to civic projects like dams and roads. This ruling more explicitly gives cities the right to knock down houses in favor of private projects. The controversial decision – allowing New London, Conn., to push ahead with offices, a hotel, new homes and a walkway, generating tax revenue and jobs – is fueling political and legal battles at the state and local levels. […] Arguments of civic good do not move some homeowners. Hank Dowski, who has owned his home in Cheektowaga, a suburb of Buffalo, for 20 years, said a developer’s plan to demolish hundreds of houses and apartment buildings in the Cedargrove Heights neighborhood was part of the “greed that’s permeating America.” Dominic Piestrak, the developer, wants to build apartments, brownstone town houses, malls and offices. Starting from scratch, he said, would help eliminate crime and abandoned homes. “If you’re going to stop urban blight you have to start somewhere and draw a line in the sand,” said Mr. Piestrak, who has enlisted the support of the town government. Although Mr. Piestrak said he would offer homeowners 10 to 15 percent above fair market value, some residents said it’s not about the money. “We picked this for our retirement,” said Barbara Dunn, who with her husband, Stan, moved back to Cheektowaga this year to a house near her parents and sister’s family. “It’s a peaceful, nice community and it’s just not a money issue.” Pamela Walters, a Cheektowaga homeowner who has lived in Cedargrove Heights for 25 years, said she understands such emotional attachments. But she supports Mr. Piestrak’s plan. “I think something drastic needs to be done there,” said Mrs. Walters, a pharmacy assistant who lives with her husband, Robert, a tractor-trailer driver. “It is decaying before our eyes.”

And check out Ms. Dunn’s recent letter to the editor in the Cheektowaga Times:

My husband was recently laid off and we have decided to retire in our Cedargrove Heights home, which we purchased approximately five years ago in the neighborhood where I grew up. In addition several of my family members reside in this neighborhood. In early February of this year we became aware that our neighborhood has been picked by the Town of Cheektowaga Supervisor, Dennis Gabryszak, for redevelopment. The town has invited a local property developer, Dominic Piestrak, in to present and develop a plan called “Renaissance Village” which would intend on razing the entire community of Cedargrove Heights (a working class neighborhood of 300 family homes and rental units). We have been trying to stay on top of this story through local stories. The stories have become ever more demoralizing in their use of terms such as “encroaching urban blight/crime/drugs/rats/deterioration and gentrification.” Town Supervisor Gabryszak was quoted using the threatening “If we need to, the town could use eminent domain.” The truth of this neighborhood is that it is situated in a prime location at the crossroads of the NYS Thruway and the Kensington Expressway, State Route 33 ( a major thoroughfare between downtown Buffalo and the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport). It is an older community, having been built over 60 years ago as housing for the Curtiss-Wright employees during WW II. It is a community of working class persons, who have maintained and developed their homes and neighborhood with their own labor and savings. Many in the area are of retirement age and are long time residents. They are neighborly, friendly and grounded people who have been very inviting and helpful to my husband and I on our trips back to ready our future home. We are looking forward to our move into this community and meeting all our neighbors. In addition to single family homes, this community has many duplexes, of which many homeowners rent out one unit to supplement their income or care for family. The single family/duplex community is circled by multi-family (4-5 unit) dwellings. Many of these multi-unit buildings are investor owned, subsidized rentals with absentee landlords. The community has asked for help from the local government entities to curtail and clean up some of the inherent problems brought on by these multi-unit rentals. Apparently, the Town of Cheektowaga’s answer to this call for help is “Renaissance Village.” Many feel this plan is an extreme response and are being told by Supervisor Gabryszak and the developer that if they don’t agree to this plan, welcome the demolition of their community and replace it with “Renaissance Village” concept, then they are destined to become just another part of the creeping urban blight of the City of Buffalo. Some think there is common ground and welcome and actively search out information from the Town of Cheektowaga website, and the developer. My own search has led to very little information…so I find myself searching the websites of the local papers for articles and editorials. This has been unsatisfactory at best and frightening at worst, as the articles increasing slant towards portraying this Cedargrove Heights community as blighted and doomed unless the Town and the proposed “Renaissance Village” development save us. This has turned our joyful, peaceful retirement plans into a future of uncertainty, fighting or fleeing.

The Cheektowaga situation seems to present a cautionary tale of what can happen when eminent domain is enlisted to further an agenda built on seemingly noble intentions — the wholesale replacement of an older, “blighted” neighborhood (a particularly subjective judgment, to be sure) with an upscale, neo-traditional development currently in vogue with smart growth planners. Actually, Cheektowaga isn’t really even a cautionary tale, just a recent example. Shouldn’t our past experience with urban renewal give pause to the utopian notion that a beneficient local government should use the power at its disposal to raze older, working class neighborhoods and replace them with something “better” in the interest of the public good? And a few questions to fellow planners…if we started seeing the promoters of smart growth projects increasingly advocate the use of eminent domain to achieve their goals, could we look past their noble intentions to see the deeper parallels with urban renewal? Would we recognize the similarity between the inner-city minority neighborhoods that were levelled (or at least stifled) via urban renewal in the 1950’s and 60’s and working class neighborhoods like Cedargrove Heights and Fort Trumbull (in New London, CT) that are targets today? Is it really our place — are we so exalted — as to be worthy of making a judgment that a neo-traditional, Portland-style neighborhood is better than a less affluent, less attractive neighbhorhood with its share of challenges, but also a fundamental sense of community and pride? As my colleague Sam Staley wrote in a study on eminent domain earlier this year:

Cities should work with developers to accommodate property rights protections rather than provide ways for them to circumvent them. In the long run, this will create a business climate more supportive of property rights, greater investment certainty, and a more cohesive community than allowing livelihoods and residents to be subjected to the whims of political expediency and majority politics.

(Hat tip: City Comforts Blog)