Cities are always coming up with projects to improve land or even create jobs, and sometimes existing buildings just don’t fit into those plans. Often, owners of such property won’t sell to make way for new development. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on the legality of one tool cities use to force reluctant landowners to sell. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee looks at one politician’s use of this legal power:
Cities are always coming up with projects to improve land
or even create jobs, and sometimes existing buildings just don’t fit
into those plans. Often, owners of such property won’t sell to make
way for new development. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on the
legality of one tool cities use to force reluctant landowners to sell. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shawn Allee looks at one
politician’s use of this legal power:
This big-city neighborhood is the kind of place where shoppers usually park their cars and walk around. Brick store fronts and restaurants are usually just a few feet from the sidewalk.
But there’s a corner that looks different, though. A lot different.
It’s home to three fast-food buildings. The first business is a popular donut shop. Next door, there’s a fried chicken drive-through. And the last building was once a burger joint, but today it’s home to a car title lender.
To hear the alderman, Patrick O’Connor, tell it, the strip looks like a piece of suburbia landed right in his big-city ward.
“There’s no symmetry, no walkability, it’s all car-related and it’s all basically parking lot. There’s more asphalt than there is building in those places.”
He says this corner on Chicago’s North Side is a bad use of space, and he’s hoping to attract new, more pedestrian-friendly businesses or buildings. But what’s to be done about it if these shops are already there and don’t want to sell? One of O’Connor’s options is to have the city force the owners to sell their properties and then redevelop the land.
The power to forcibly buy property is called eminent domain, and O’Connor says the city’s using it to speed redevelopment throughout Chicago. But O’Connor’s concerned time may run out on the use of this power.
Governments have long-used eminent domain for public use. For example, a city or state might condemn a whole neighborhood, buy out the homeowners, and level the buildings to make way for a road or airport.
But the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called Kelo versus New London, is considering just how far government can go when using eminent domain to bolster private development.
O’Connor hopes the court sides with local governments.
“In our community there’s not too many open spaces. So what we look to do is to enhance what we have to try to utilize space to the maximum effectiveness. That’s really where the court case hinges, you know, Who’s to say one use is better than another?”
And that question – who decides the best use of a property – is the rallying cry of critics who say cities abuse eminent domain powers.
Sam Staley’s with the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank. He says the Supreme Court case is really about fairness.
“Those people that know how to use the system and know the right people in city council really have the ability to compel a neighbor or another property to sell their property whether they want to or not.”
Staley and other property rights advocates are also convinced that cities don’t need eminent domain for economic development. Staley says local economies can improve without government interference.
“The private sector’s just gotten lazy. They no longer want to have to go through the market, so they don’t come up with creative ways of accommodating property rights of the people that own the pieces of land or building that they want to develop.”
Staley says, instead, developers find it easier to have cities use eminent domain.
But most urban planners and some environmentalists say a court decision against this use of eminent domain could threaten redevelopment of both cities and aging suburbs. John Echevarria is with Georgetown University’s Environmental Law and Policy Institute.
“If you don’t have the power of eminent domain, you can’t do effective downtown redevelopment. The inevitable result would be more shopping centers, more development on the outskirts of urban areas, and more sprawl.”
Alderman O’Connor says constituents will always push urban politicians to put scarce land to better use. He says that won’t change if the court strikes down the broadest eminent domain powers; cities will just have to resort to strong-arm tactics instead.
“The alternative is the city then has to become harsher on how they try to enforce laws. They have to try and run sting operations and go after businesses that are breaking the law and then try to close them down and live with empty places until the sellers get tired and they sell.”
The small business community finds this attitude outrageous. They say as long as they improve their businesses and people frequent them, the market should decide whether they stay or go.
On the other hand, urban planners say the market doesn’t always make best use of land. They say local governments need eminent domain powers to control development, and they’re looking to the court to protect those powers.
For the GLRC, I’m Shawn Allee.