Saturday, September 26, 2009

Food for the Thoughtless

We have been advancing the notion that, absent a rigorous accounting for cost-and the means to address said cost-the development at Wllets Point could swiftly devolve into the proverbial white elephant; much as the proposed NYSE expansion did, to the tune of over $100 million. If our gloomy prognostication proves correct-and the businesses at the Point are eminent domained out-than we could be looking at an unsightly Iron Triangle vacant hole in the near future.

Scare tactics? Unreasonable pessimism? Perhaps, but if the case of Kelo v. New London is any indication, we need to be wary of proceeding at the Point-especially if we are going to use the heavy handed mechanism of eminent domain. As 1010 Wins reports:

"Weeds, glass, bricks, pieces of pipe and shingle splinters have replaced the knot of aging homes at the site of the nation's most notorious eminent domain project. There are a few signs of life: Feral cats glare at visitors from a miniature jungle of Queen Anne's lace, thistle and goldenrod. Gulls swoop between the lot's towering trees and the adjacent sewage treatment plant. But what of the promised building boom that was supposed to come wrapped and ribboned with up to 3,169 new jobs and $1.2 million a year in tax revenues? They are noticeably missing. Proponents of the ambitious plan blame the sour economy. Opponents call it a "poetic justice.''

So, let's get this straight. New London successfully used the taking power of the state to remove home owners from their land, with the proposed purpose of giving the land over to a private developer who had a grandiose development concept-and now the land lies fallow?

"They are getting what they deserve. They are going to get nothing,'' said Susette Kelo, the lead plaintiff in the landmark property rights case. "I don't think this is what the United States Supreme Court justices had in mind when they made this decision.'' Kelo's iconic pink home sat for more than a century on that currently empty lot, just steps away from Connecticut's quaint but economically distressed Long Island Sound waterfront. Shortly after she moved in, in 1997, her house became ground zero in the nation's best-known land rights catfight. New London officials decided they needed Kelo's land and the surrounding 90 acres for a multimillion-dollar private development that included residential, hotel conference, research and development space and a new state park that would compliment a new $350 million Pfizer pharmaceutical research facility. Kelo and six other homeowners fought for years, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2005, justices voted 5-4 against them, giving cities across the country the right to use eminent domain to take property for private development."

All for nought, apparently: "In New London the city's prized economic development plan has fallen apart as the economy crumbled. The Corcoran Jennison Cos., a Boston-based developer, had originally locked in exclusive rights to develop nearly the entire northern half of the Fort Trumbull peninsula. But those rights expired in June 2008, despite multiple extensions, because the firm was unable to secure financing, according to President Marty Jones. In July, backers halted fundraising for the project's crown jewel, a proposed $60 million, 60,000-square-foot Coast Guard museum."

A cautionary tale, to be sure. Which prompts us to remind folks that NYC is pretty much broke-and new development is difficult to finance in the current climate. But we do know one thing for sure. The existing businesses at the Point are providing for the families of 2500 workers-and paying taxes to a city treasury that's hemorrhaging red ink. The pipe dreams at Willets Point are a product of a mayor who has an edifice complex, and who allegedly only makes decisions based on the merits-like a football stadium on the Far West Side.

The eviction of the local businesses at Willets Point should be stayed until Mike Bloomberg can account for all of the money needed to pay for the process. The attorney for Susan Kelo should get the last word here: "Scott Bullock, senior attorney for the Institute for Justice, argued Kelo's case before the Supreme Court. He calls "massive changes that have happened in the law and in the public consciousness'' the "real legacy'' of Kelo and the other plaintiffs. The empty land means the city won a "hollow victory,'' he said. "What cities should take from this is to run fleeing from what New London did and do economic development that is market-driven and incorporate properties of folks who are truly committed to their neighborhood and simply want to be a part of what happens,'' he said."