Friday, November 13, 2009

Suffering From a Seizure

The NY Times focuses today on the impact of the abandonment of New London by the Pfizer drug company-five years after all of the home owners had their property seized to make way for a wondrous development that was supposed to provide the community with three thousand new jobs. The controversial Supreme Court Decision, now known as just Kelo, paved the way for this colossal failure: "From the edge of the Thames River in New London, Conn., Michael Cristofaro surveyed the empty acres where his parents’ neighborhood had stood, before it became the crux of an epic battle over eminent domain. “Look what they did,” Mr. Cristofaro said on Thursday. “They stole our home for economic development. It was all for Pfizer, and now they get up and walk away.”

As we have been commenting before, the seizure of people's property should never be done lightly-and when the plan is massively expensive, as it is at Willets Point, a city needs to think long and hard before it absconds with land that may have been in families for generations: "That sentiment has been echoing around New London since Monday, when Pfizer, the giant drug company, announced it would leave the city just eight years after its arrival led to a debate about urban redevelopment that rumbled through the United States Supreme Court, and reset the boundaries for governments to seize private land for commercial use. Pfizer said it would pull 1,400 jobs out of New London within two years and move most of them a few miles away to a campus it owns in Groton, Conn., as a cost-cutting measure. It would leave behind the city’s biggest office complex and an adjacent swath of barren land that was cleared of dozens of homes to make room for a hotel, stores and condominiums that were never built."

So, all that New London has left for all of the heartache it cause Susan Kelo and the 89 other homeowners is a giant vacant sore. As Juan Gonzales points out in this morning's NY Daily News: "Kelo ended up losing her home and moving to nearby Groton, and the entire neighborhood was bulldozed. Four years later, there are only empty lots and weeds where their houses once stood. As for those 3,000 jobs, residents are still waiting for them. "There are some projects in the pipeline, but they've been unable to move forward for lack of financing," John Brooks, executive director of the New London Development Corp., conceded. Finances have gotten so bad, Brooks said, that he will soon be relegated to working part time for the corporation."

So, as we have been saying, here, here and here, NYC needs to see this New London fiasco as a lesson to be learned-and before the city moves to hold any eminent domain hearings on Willets Point (slated for this month or next) it needs to re-evaluate the cost and feasibility of this massive undertaking before it proceeds any further. New Yorkers need to know where the money is coming from; and how the traffic infrastructure will be built that will accommodate a proposed 9,000,000 square feet of development.

Is this the kind of speculative venture that New York needs in this parlous economic time? And will the business owners of Willets Point-along with 2500 workers-lose their life work because of the edifice complex of the richest citizen of the city? In four years, Mike Bloomberg will be (hopefully) gone; but what happens at the Iron Triangle may well define his tenure. As Gonzales reminds us-giving a shout out to Jake Bono of Willets Point as well: "This week, the other shoe dropped. Pfizer announced that it will soon close its New London research center and shift its 1,500 jobs to Groton. The jobs will be gone just around the time the facility's tax abatement ends. Ten years after New London started destroying a neighborhood for a development dream, red-faced town leaders have only a dust bowl on their hands."

And what of the Kelo decision itself? Justice Clarence Thomas has had opprobrium heaped on him for his conservative views and for a supposed lack of intellect. But as the Times tells us, he was right on with his dissent on this case: "In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court ruled that it was permissible to take private property and turn it over to developers as part of a plan to bolster the local economy. Conservative justices, including Clarence Thomas, dissented. Justice Thomas called New London’s plan “a costly urban-renewal project whose stated purpose is a vague promise of new jobs and increased tax revenue, but which is also suspiciously agreeable to the Pfizer Corporation.”

A vague promise indeed. And in the case of Willets Point, that vague promise of Valhalla-in the midst of the worst economic recession in 80 years-is simply one expensive road that NYC can ill afford to travel. It doesn't have the money, and it can't afford to lose the jobs and tax paying businesses-not for a promissory note that Mike Bloomberg, long gone when it comes due, will not forced to make good on.