You Got to Be Kidding Me!

Well, I never said it wasn’t good for planning…

Posted in Politics, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on June 30, 2005

…just that it won’t be good for planners, if the public associates us with high-handed Kelo-based condemnations.

Here’s a great example. The city of Freeport, TX intends to use eminent domain to transfer three downtown properties on the Brazos River to a developer who will build a marina there. The stated goal is to bring in $60 million worth of hotels and restaurants, revitalizing the downtown and reclaiming retail business from a nearby sprawl suburb.

Is this good planning? Undoubtedly. Assuming it works, the proposed project will bring recreation and street life back to Freeport’s downtown. Residents will be able to shop in Freeport instead of driving to a nearby postwar housing development. There’s a lot here for planners to like. As the catchphrase goes, people will be able to “Live, work and play” downtown. Without eminent domain, the same facilities might have been built on greenfields outside of town.

Of course there’s also a lot for citizens to hate. This is exactly the kind of high-handed wave of eminent domain condemnations, benefitting developers and local government at the expense of homeowners, that was predicted the moment the Supreme Court ruling came out. It may not be long at all before the backlash begins, and it gets even harder than before to make good plans happen.

UPDATE: many more imminent eminent domain (say that five times fast!) proceedings in these two posts from The Agitator (hat tip: Bitter)

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More on the Kelo decision

Posted in Politics, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on June 24, 2005

Instapundit has a nice (and balanced) roundup of the blog reactions this morning. One interesting point made is that if we’re now going to have an eminent domain free-for-all, a lot of downtown churches may find their buildings condemned to make way for, say, loft condos. The urban poor will, as usual, be the most vulnerable–removed to make way for WalMart and the like.

Planners first arrived on the nation’s radar screen during the Urban Renewal era, and to this day are often associated with “slum” clearance. For the uninitiated, that process involved the systematic denial of capital (“redlining”) to urban poor and lower-middle class homeowners, and subsequent official designation of their neighborhoods as “blight”, allowing them to be condemned wholesale to make way for public housing (“the projects”) Kelo opens the door to a reprise, but on a far larger scale since this time the so-called blight will be targetted for replacement not by underfunded and politically unpopular public housing, but commercial development that makes money for everyone, especially local government.

Becoming publicly associated with another wave of slum clearance would be suicidal for the planning profession. We would be more than well-advised to keep a comfortable distance from development proposals that hinge on Kelo-based eminent domain rulings.

SCOTUS Rules on Kelo v. New London

Posted in Politics, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on June 23, 2005

I’m of two hearts on the decision.

First, it’s an unambiguous defeat for property rights. The libertarian in me can’t find any silver lining in the fact that, as Justice O’Connor writes in the dissent, “Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party”. (quote bogarted from Ken Wheaton) with the benefits going to -of course- the richest and most influential citizens and businesses, including the already-hated regional and national developers.

The philosophical issues involved deserve a post -hell, a book- of their own; those of you who are interested will already be well-versed. In a nutshell, the pure market-driven solution isn’t practical because land isn’t a commodity. Infrastructure (a public good) needs to go where it needs to go, and the lone holdout can create significant and costly externalities by refusing to move. However, extending that argument, as New London has done, to cover the potential gains from private development (and the tax money that would flow from it) is uncompelling to say the least. In my opinion, the bright line here should be between public and private goods. That is to say, something like a transportation or utility network can shove a private property owner out of the way in the name of the common benefit, but any private facility (housing, shopping malls, office space and soforth) has to pay what the market demands. Seems simple enough, but that’s before you throw politics into the mix. In the real world, what we end up with instead is a pendulum swinging slowly between greater and lesser scope for eminent domain. That’s somewhat natural in a precedent-driven common law legal system, but it shouldn’t have to be that way.

Second, the ruling is an unambiguous victory for the planning profession. The reasons are fairly self-explanatory of course, but the key is that a political movement in a given jurisdiction now has much more power to physically alter the landscape (or built environment) within its own lifetime. It seems to me that expanded eminent domain powers should strengthen the hand of local pro-development coalitions vis a vis NIMBYs who essentially sit on prime close-in real estate, forcing new housing and the public and private facilities that go with it to the periphery in classic sprawl.

Of course, that obviously won’t make the pro-development folks any more appealing to the NIMBYs, who tend to be seen as “the little guy” in such disputes. If anything, it’s likely to make the gap between planners, developers and the public wider and deeper, and ultimately lead to the pendulum’s return swing. A more workable long-term fix would be some kind of wholesale reform of the land market, but of course that’s strictly an academic discussion. It will be interesting to see where the Kelo ruling takes us in the next decade.

CNN: We report, you …just don’t read too close!

Posted in Politics by Stacy McMahon on June 23, 2005

CNN headlines this story “General: Insurgency not weakening”. You have to read more than halfway down to find out that Senator Levin (a Democrat) actually made the comment about the insurgency not getting weaker. But of course they manage to get the total number of US troops killed above the fold.

So what did General Abizaid actually say on the subject? That the insurgency “is about the same” as 6 months ago. Fair enough. It would be more surprising if a band of fascists who’ve ruled with an iron hand for 30 years didn’t have the will and fortitude to keep murdering civilians and a few coalition troops here and there until they get their way. Especially when they undoubtedly have plenty of support from (at least) 2-3 moderately wealthy neighboring governments with a vested interest in making sure their people can’t look out the window and see a functioning Arab muslim democracy nextdoor.

This isn’t rocket science, and while I’m not shocked that Teddy Kennedy and Carl Levin don’t get it, I am losing patience with Rumsfeld’s refusal to see the pickle we’re in. Which is that our military has its hands completely full in Afghanistan and Iraq and everyone knows it. So, for example, Bashar Assad feels free to have Lebanese democracy activists assassinated, while Syria continues to provide safe houses and training areas for terrorists on their way to both Israel and Iraq. Most of the signs are that stability (at least by Middle Eastern standards) has largely arrived in Iraq; the journey to achieve peace there as well will take us through Damascus, Riyadh, and maybe Tehran.