Getting real on urban development

The Washington Post has an excellent case study of urban redevelopment in Bridgeport, Connecticut in today’s issue. Unfortunately, it does more to highlight what’s wrong with the process than what works, and the absurdity of eminent domain for economic development purposes. Bridgeport began condemining property for a redevelopment project called Steel Point in 1999. It still remains undeveloped. Standing in the way, the article says, is a lone property, site of the home of Baseball Hall of Famer Henry O’Rourke (also the first man to get a hit in a professional game of the National League in 1876). Which is why, when the city tore down the neighborhood six years ago, the bulldozers stopped at 274 Pembroke St. Hall of Famers are a rare commodity around here. “I don’t want anyone 20 years from now saying: ‘That house is not standing. Why didn’t anyone do anything?’ ” said Michael Bielawa, one of the men who is trying to save it. After years of fits and starts, Bridgeport is faced with a renewed effort to redevelop Steel Point: It is into this climate that Daniel Pfeffer, president of Midtown Equities, the lead developer of the latest Steel Point project, has waded. Pfeffer’s plan is the most gleaming of all the plans yet, with 11 towers mostly for residential use, an enormous hotel, a sprawling shopping village and even a heliport. No one seems to be asking about the absurdity of one property standing int he way of a project so massive it would include 11 residential and mixed use towers, shoppoing plazas and a major hotel. Is a 1/2 acre of land that critical to the profitability of the project? Obviously, its not. But that is what our approach to urban development, and its reliance on eminent domain, has brought–private developers expect the government to seize all other properties, consolidate them, and hand them over on a silver (usually highly subsidized) silver platter before they even break ground. Thus, redevelopment is about mega-projects, not the incremental, block-by-block kind of investment that creates neighborhoods, community, a sound investment climate for private enterprise, and sustainable development. Even in this case, creative phasing and design could easily begin the project while the problem of the historic house is sorted out. Oh, one more thing worth noting about Bridgeport: At one point it was one of the wealthiest cities in America. Since the decline of manufacturing, its become a hot bed of corruption, scandal and decline. When the developer and mayor first met, one-on-one, the developer expected to be asked for a bribe.