July 5, 2005

Another Problem With Using Eminent Domain For Grandoise Urban Renewal

I share the widespread outrage over a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing governments to take people's properties because they think some more upscale development would make better use of the land. But John Tierney points out another problem with the ruling: It enables (and perhaps even encourages) governments to embark on what are often bad projects - destroying existing neighborhoods to create a grand new planned environment.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the dramatic scale of such buildings and projects doom them to end up as soul-less hulks, replacing what could have been vibrant rejuvenated neighborhoods had existing buildings and streetscapes been improved instead of razed. Boston's Scollay Square experience is a case in point, replaced by the sweeping City Hall Plaza - where there's now pretty much universal agreement that changes are needed in the awful design in order to get people to actually utilize it.

Detroit's Renaissance Center is another example of a grand plan gone awry - it might have looked great on paper, but because the center is not human-scaled and not integrated with the nearby neighborhood, and fell far short of its promise.

"When it opened in 1977, Detroit's Renaissance Center was intended to herald, as its name implies, the revival of downtown Detroit. Thirty years later, the looming riverfront hotel complex overlooks an urban landscape pockmarked by majestic ruins, vacant lots, and underused infrastructure," Kate Stohr wrote in the Architectural Record last year. "Separated from the rest of Detroit's downtown by concrete berms and Jefferson Avenue, the center's six glass-plated towers struggled to retain tenants despite a round of renovations in the mid-1980s, and did little to stem the exodus from the city. And while the RenCen, as it has come to be called, still dominates the skyline, instead of encouraging investment, the isolated development has become a looming symbol of Detroit's many ill-fated revitalization attempts."

Land-takings are often part of such large-scale demolish-and-rebuild projects.

"Pittsburgh has been the great pioneer in eminent domain ever since its leaders razed 80 buildings in the 1950's near the riverfront park downtown," Tierney writes. "They replaced a bustling business district with Gateway Center, an array of bland corporate towers surrounded by the sort of empty plazas that are now considered hopelessly retrograde by urban planners trying to create street life."

He points to a string of similar failed "renewal projects," such as East Liberty, where a bustling shopping district was destroyed. And he constrasts them with areas of the city "that escaped urban renewal: the old-fashioned business districts with crowded sidewalks and the newly gentrified neighborhoods with renovated homes and converted warehouses. ... [W]hat sets the success stories apart from Gateway Center and East Liberty [is that n]o politicians ever seized those homes and businesses for a 'better use. '"

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