Since the 2004 Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. City of New London, the nation has gone through a period of soul searching regarding the proper use of the power of eminent domain. An essential question in this debate is “What is the right balance in eminent domain between governmental needs on the one hand and property owner rights on the other?” When eminent domain is used for a purely public purpose—say a school or highway–it is more easily defended both in the Court of Law and in the Court of Public Opinion. When eminent domain is used to transfer privately owned property to a for-profit developer, there are potential problems, and the law has changed to reflect this acknowledgement of the inherent conflicts between the rights of property owners and the rights of governmental entities to seize properties.
Typically, a Redevelopment Agency first creates a plan in order to revitalize economically stressed or deteriorated urban areas. The old term for this practice was urban renewal, a term decried by James Baldwin as a means of removing poor African Americans from their homes. In 1961, Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a strong critique of urban renewal. The Rondout neighborhood in Kingston, New York on the Hudson River was essentially destroyed by a federally funded urban renewal program in the 1960s, with more than 400 old buildings demolished, most of them historic brick structures built in the 19th century. Similarly ill-conceived urban renewal programs gutted the historic centers of other towns and cities across America in the 1950s and 1960s.
Now Norwalk’s Redevelopment Agency—an entity accountable to no one—has set its sights on the historic Wall Street—West Avenue corridors again. The plan area is awkwardly bundled to include Norwalk Hospital and the site of the old Norwalk YMCA in what amounts to redevelopment gerrymandering. Strict compliance with state statute is necessary to adopt a redevelopment plan. The existence of deteriorated or deteriorating conditions (i.e. “blight”) must be established. Blight determination is necessary to unlock state & federal funds. Labeling areas as blighted should be done carefully. Blight determinations provide the justification for commercial tax abatements. Tax abatements for redevelopers often divert money from schools, social services and the taxpayers.
But defining blight is a thorny issue. Too often developers with government connections seek blight determinations to win access to tax abatements. Blight and redevelopment then are shaped not by public purpose, but by private interests seeking public subsidies. (JHM, POKO, others). Redevelopment policies originally intended to address unsafe or insufficient urban housing are now routinely employed to subsidize the building of luxury apartments. These policies are the silent slow killer of small business and small development which would proceed organically if Cities focused their efforts on infrastructure improvements and allowed business and property owners to work with market forces to reawaken underutilized city centers.
The Wall Street area has been under the influence and control of the Redevelopment Agency for decades with sometimes terrible consequences. The Tyvek Temple, aka POKO, is a grim monument to failed redevelopment plans endorsed by our highest elected officials in cooperation with the Agency. In the case of Wall Street, the area has improved despite the involvement of the Agency and not because of their involvement. According to recent testimony of Redevelopment Agency Director Tim Sheehan, the Wall Street Redevelopment Area plan expired in June of 2018. There is no current redevelopment plan for the area, which may explain the haste with which the Planning Committee and the agency are driving this plan forward to the council for a vote Tuesday. Despite claims to the contrary from the Redevelopment Agency and some Planning Committee members, the Agency is literally starting from scratch to create a new plan area with ever-shifting criteria for determining blight, which as noted, opens the door to eminent domain takings and taxpayer subsidies to connected developers. Whatever the term–blight, slum, deteriorated or deteriorating–the bar for taking one person’s property and giving it to someone else must be high. The Wall Street area has improved significantly in the past few years, making blight determinations impossible. We cannot accept vague blight determination that would support connected developers and an opaque Agency that operates with little oversight and no voter accountability.
Jason Milligan is a real estate broker who owns property in the Wall Street area.