Sunday, August 26, 2007

Eminent Domain Abuse vs. Real Revitalization

Almost everybody either knows somebody or knows somebody who knows somebody touched by eminent domain. My grandmother's family lost their farm for a Navy Base, and I got my car fixed once at a shop eventually taken to put in a road. Those are deemed for the common good, even though the property owner will still have ill feelings years later.

However, in New Jersey, our governments seem to have an illness when it comes to eminent domain. You read stories almost monthly where some town is going to take one person's private property to give to another, usually a politically connected developer, for the purposes of redevelopment. Economic revitalization is often promised (luxury condos, high end shops, etc.), and people start talking about the old downtown through "remembering when." coke-bottle rose glasses.

Eminent domain abuse seems to be the municipal version of a get rich quick scheme, which has predictably bad results. As the EnCap disaster should teach everybody, in the end the lotto ticket promises often leave towns in bad shape with the added bonus of a population divided.

There is another way.

When I lived in Holland, Michigan I arrived on the tail end of an award winning revitalization project. For comparative purposes, the City of Holland's population is somewhere between Ridgewood and Hackensack, with a downtown about a mile in length.

Here's how the National Trust for Historic Preservation described the effort when they awarded Holland the Great American Mainstreet Award in 1997:
In 1978 Holland established the Downtown Development Authority to promote economic growth. But it wasn't until 1984, when Holland adopted the Main Street approach to downtown revitalization that the community was galvanized for

Holland's downtowners made plans for a beautification project and encouraged property owners, merchants, tenants, and government leaders to partner a proposed streetscape effort as a mutual investment essential to the community's future.
The City didn't go around taking everybody's buildings and turning them over to some private contractor with a fancy slide show (PowerPoint wasn't around then). No, this is how they did it:
Main Street supporters credit the city government as a significant partner, initiating financial incentives for building improvements, an overall design plan, and no-cost design assistance to downtown building owners and tenants.

The city helps recruit businesses and chips in to the operating budget for the merged MainStreet/Downtown Development Authority. "City hall believes downtown is the heart of the city and an integral part of the city's health," says Seiter.

The private sector contributes with low-interest loans for building improvements that work in tandem with public design incentives. Businesses and individuals have given financially, physically, and politically to make the Streetscape and Snowmelt projects a reality.

Holland's downtown success is contagious. A mix of restaurants, eateries, galleries, and vest-pocket parks makes Holland an attractive destination, as well as a place to while away time. The retail vacancy rate is less than one percent and upper stories downtown are more than 95 percent filled by offices and apartments that cater to young professionals, young families with children, empty nesters, and students from neighboring Hope College.
It's the planning, and the idea that the businesses who have an economic interest in revitalization need to be treated as stakeholders in the plan as opposed to impediments to the vision of a few. In spite of Michigan's overall downturn, the Holland area seems to be somewhat insulated.

There are parts of NJ that could use a rebirth, and I'm sure the communities would be all for it. However, understanding that it won't happen over night and no one politician will be able to take credit for it may be too hard for some to embrace. It's not about the individual political career however, it's about the community they serve.


Jill said...

"Rebirth" unfortunately usually means "Only the wealthy may live here."

The abuse of eminent domain to give land to developers is very scary. With the real estate crash this scenario is less likely, but what's to keep the mayor of my town from deciding that the town can get more tax revenues from a developer who wants to build a McMansion on my lot than he can from my 1950's POS cape?

rmfretz said...

For the immediate downtown, that's usually pretty true. However, a smart plan incorporates all of the income scales in redoing things.

To your second point, until the NJ Supreme Court ruling earlier this year, absolutely nothing. Now, the burden is on the town to prove your house is a blight, instead of you having to prove it's not. However, once the determination is made, it would be up to you to defend your POS.

It's ugly and wrong, although judging by the election returns in towns with notorious cases of abuse, people won't stand for it. That is the ultimate equalizer, people voting.