Keeping the Tools of Redevelopment in Cities

Keep Our Cities Redeveloping
A Letter to the Editor of the New Bedford Standard-Times by Peter M. O’Connor
Peter M. O’Connor is an Attorney in Boston

It is sometimes said that a city is a constant negotiation, but House Bill 1770, introduced by Rep. Marty Walz of Boston, will stop much of that negotiation dead in its tracks. Over the past three years, similar legislation has been introduced in at least 25 state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, many of which have already passed, and which radically curtail the public’s ability to negotiate with private property owners over urban redevelopment projects.
This legislative backlash is a response to Kelo v. City of New London, Conn., decided by the Supreme Court in June 2005. If you care at all about the future of our older cities, including New Bedford and Fall River, you should be alarmed by this shortsighted and harmful proposal.
Probably no city in the U.S. has used eminent domain more liberally for the purpose of urban redevelopment, and no city has benefitted more from its use, than Boston. The creation of the Prudential Center, and the redevelopment of Washington Street in the South End or of Park Square and the Theater District, for example, would not have been possible without the use of eminent domain as an urban redevelopment tool, the very thing this legislation proposes to outlaw. Other Massachusetts cities, such as Fall River and New Bedford, are working hard to achieve similar successes.
I grew up in New London and lived there for the better part of 34 years. It is a city that can easily be described as economically distressed. By the 1960s and 1970s, the city was already losing population as well as its economic diversity. It is a familiar pattern. Highway-building projects increased mobility and obviated the need for people to live where they work. Land use policies promoted suburban sprawl. And the property tax system created competition from neighboring towns for tax revenue. All of which helped drain the lifeblood from the urban core and continue to do so.
As a result, New London’s declining tax base makes it difficult for the city to maintain necessary infrastructure and services, and impossible to keep property taxes on a par with surrounding towns. The higher tax rate, relative to neighboring towns, further encourages businesses and individuals who can leave to do so. Those who remain, or replace those who leave, are increasingly poor. Sadly, this is not a story unique to
New London.
What New London — like Lowell, Springfield, Brockton and Fitchburg — needs is an infusion of private capital. But investment capital does not flow to economically distressed, highly taxed cities without some coaxing. In order to attract private investment, New London needed a plan for the city’s redevelopment that would make sense to families deciding where to buy a home and to businesses with capital to invest. And it needed the ability to implement that plan. Without the power to acquire the needed properties, by eminent domain if necessary, the plan would have remained just that, another plan collecting dust on a city planner’s bookshelf.
Perhaps, given enough time and the right economic conditions, our struggling older cities will attract the needed investment without the need for government intervention, and every single property owner within a redevelopment plan area will voluntarily agree to implement it. This is essentially what H.B. 1770 will do, leave the future of our cities and their residents to be decided by private property owners alone. But it is because the failure of private economic decisions led to the decline of our cities, and to the tragic waste of human potential that this decline has entailed that, in fact, it is a public purpose to pursue urban redevelopment projects, a public purpose that merits the use, when necessary, of the power of eminent domain.
The Kelo court reminds us that this has been the law for decades, but H.B. 1770 would reverse it in Massachusetts and essentially tie the hands of city planners and redevelopers, at a time when their efforts are most needed in places like Worcester, New Bedford, Salem and Pittsfield.
No one I know would question that the residents of a neighborhood undergoing redevelopment are entitled to be treated with sensitivity and respect, as selling a home or moving a business are extremely stressful and disruptive life events. Perhaps this is why, typically, a property owner receives significantly more in an eminent domain proceeding than in a private transaction, and this was certainly the case in New London. This is simply the premium that the public pays, probably justly, for “forcing” a sale of private property for a public purpose.
Too many of our cities have been swept up in what amounts to a death spiral, and the people who are left behind suffer the consequences — higher taxes, curtailed services, increased crime and failed schools. If H.B. 1770 becomes law, private property owners will no longer need to participate in the constant negotiation with the public that allows a city to adapt to changing conditions, and to reverse the decline caused by the flight of capital to the suburbs.
If H.B. 1770 becomes law, each individual property owner in a redevelopment area will have to power to refuse to participate in the negotiation. And if the negotiation can be shut down by a single property owner who simply refuses to participate, where does that leave our cities? Where does that leave the people who are left behind by the public’s failure to act, those residents of a blighted neighborhood who have no other choices? It leaves them abandoned, like the boarded up, crime-ridden, decrepit neighborhoods they occupy. And that is simply bad public policy.
Peter M. O’Connor is the former general counsel of the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation of Boston, and represents private and public-sector clients on real estate and economic development projects.
July 27, 2008
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