When Seized Land Lies Fallow
When then Justice John Paul Stevens handed down his now infamous ruling in the eminent domain case Kelo v. New London, he insisted that the seizure of a Connecticut neighborhood “was not intended to serve the interests of Pfizer, Inc., or any other private entity, but rather to revitalize the local economy by creating temporary and permanent jobs, encouraging spin-off economic activities and maximizing public access to the waterfront.” The public use taking he approved was a public enterprise designed to serve the city and its people, not the state seizing and transferring private property for the benefit of other, wealthier, more powerful private hands.
Should Justice Stevens make it up from his Florida retirement to the town of New London, he could behold the revitalized local economy, with its temporary and permanent jobs, encouraged economic activities and maximized public access to the waterfront. He’ll have to squint, though. There’s nothing there.
As Charlotte Allen found on her tour of the area a few months ago, the Fort Trumbull area of New London is now “a vast, empty field—90 acres—that was entirely uninhabited and looked as though it had always been that way.” You see, the private entities whose interests were not the core justification of New London’s taking pulled out of the project: the developers failed to find funding; Pfizer engaged in a merger that allowed it to close its New London facilities, not expand them, and to get out just before the tax incentives the city gave them ran out and they would have had to pay full fare for their property.
New London’s latest mayor has another plan in the works for Fort Trumbull, as the city’s coffers remain empty thanks to a missing tax base, this time “a national first—a green, integrated mid-rise community. There would be green tech, LEED-certified buildings, solar power. It would be a green, self-sustaining neighborhood.” Even that remains in the wispy aspiration phase at the moment, however. The only actual occupants of the Fort Trumbull development area since the seizure, and the clear-cutting, have been piles of garbage and waste, piled there in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Oh, and there have been reports of feral cats.
As Stephen J. Smith recounts over at Next City, New London’s process of plan, seize, demolish, abandon is unfortunately anything but a unique occurrence in urban development. Just Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported on the nearby Connecticut town of Bridgeport, which actually is building something on Steel Point, its development land: one 150,000 square foot Bass Pro Shop. Bridgeport hopes the Bass Pro Shop will anchor the area, and draw in other businesses and developers. The billion-dollar project also hopes to build almost 1,500 homes, of “an as-yet undecided mix that could include apartments, condos and town homes.” The most optimistic scenario needs another decade to complete the project, assuming no more massive bribery scandals envelop it, and no more developers get cold feet. Yet the town of Bridgeport began seizing local businesses and 270 homes in Steel Point back in the 1990s. The most optimistic scenario, then, completes development 30 years after seizures began.
Economic development projects are sold as a way of revitalizing a lagging local economy, kickstarting a transformative moment for towns that, in the case of New London, have been struggling since the whaling industry went under. The bulldozers eating through Victorian homes and old neighborhoods are justified by the bright new lights of what will be. Consequently, most of the arguments in eminent domain and public development projects have concentrated on interpreting the “public” part of “public use.” With these projects standing dark and vacant, though, maybe it’s time to start paying attention to whether they’ll even be put to any “use.”