August 1, 2005: Though a heat wave hovered, New York State residents caught a cool breeze in late July when news broke that State Attorney
General Eliot Spitzer, aka the Sheriff of Wall Street, had once
again hit the justice trail. Was he tracking Medicaid bandits,
or reconsidering his tenderfoot treatment of the New York Racing
Association and New York State Canal Corporation? Digging into
dicey state contract procurements? Are a herd of organized drug
traders headed for the last round-up? Or was it possible the
Sheriff would investigate all those yarns about New York's
powerful, albeit semi-public development agencies, and the
political cronyism some say has flourished like the green bay
tree during the administration of Governor George Pataki?
Nope. Sheriff Spitzer (who may be Pataki's successor; cross
your fingers reformers!) is on the trail of something far more
serious. Payola in the music biz. After Spitzer cleans up
Tune Town you can be sure the thugs who shoot to the top of the
charts will do so strictly on merit. And Jennie Lynds like
Lil' Kim will never be toppled by some bribe pumped ho from
Hohokus. Yup. After the Sheriff poses for some daguerreotypes,
and collects a hefty re-ward from the tune tweakers and makes
them promise to reform their culture of corruption, we can all
Don't do it, if you're thinking of buying a home. So say a
growing number of financial experts, referencing the housing
bubble. On the other hand, some industry enthusiasts are still
saying go go go. Figuring there will always be enough illegal
aliens to sign on for another round of sugar shack mortgages.
The real estate industry as a group (as opposed to individuals
within it) tends to be against measures to curb illegal
immigration. U.S. Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer of
New York deserve their thanks. Both reps recently voted to
decrease a proposed increase in the U. S. Border Patrol. Since
neither are lax about terrorism-- both are pursuing Homeland
Security funding for various initiatives in New York State--
they must have done so to protect the American Dream. Knowing
people residing illegally in this country pose little threat to
it. The 9/11 hijackers being the exception that proved the rule.
The Castle Coalition is a Washington based organization devoted
to battling government misuse of eminent domain (ED). They don't
object to traditional ED uses (roads, bridges, etc.) but to
the increased use of it as a redevelopment tool-- with local
governments forcing people to sell their property to whichever
private developer government chooses. The rationale being
projected tax profits and revitalization. The process sometimes
involves a declaration of "blight" but in many instances,
all that's needed is for a bigger entity to come along with
a master plan.
Consider an ED case near Syracuse, New York. Where, to quote the
"Current Controversies" list on the Castle Coalition website,
"29 successful businesses in Salina are being threatened with
condemnation for a research and development park" that will
"compliment" Destiny Park. A humongous mall and entertainment
center. Critics have raised reasonable doubt whether the result
of the overall plan will be as successful as proponents claim.
But then, ED is often used on spec. And vacant lots left behind
by failed grand plans make dandy places for parking junkers,
dumping bodies and raising crops of weeds.
The "Current Controversies" list is sort of a hit parade of ED.
The top slots, in terms of numbers, are filled respectively by
California, New Jersey and New York. The cases covered aren't
the only instances of ED in these states, just ones garnering
some attention. Among the New York places that score are the
Park South neighborhood in the state capital of Albany, and the
Manhattanville area of West Harlem in New York City. The Empire
State Development Corporation, the mother of all powerful, albeit
semi-public state development agencies is involved in West
Harlem. Also on the list is Spring Valley. Where local government
says some of the downtown businesses being told to leave want to
sell, but don't like the price the city wants to pay. Which goes
to the question of the fair recompense people are supposed to
receive in exchange for having their property "taken"*. In a free
market buyers can offer any price they like: in an unfree market
sellers are forced by law to take it.
New Jersey's Current Controversies include a case in Newark.
A redevelopment plan which would waste 65 homes and businesses
was initially rejected "but following sizable donations to city
council members...was approved 8 months later". For some reason
this reminds me of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Where Mayor John
Street, when not busy denying knowledge of graft and extortion
by close associates, has been snapping up private property. His
Neighborhood Transformation Initiative has claimed 5,500
properties to date. Meanwhile in Washington, Pennsylvania, it's
time for Shorty's Lunch and Jerry's Shoe Repair to take a hike.
Developers need their space for a hotel and retail complex.
Ohio does ED too. Often. The Flats section of Cleveland, on the
Cuyahoga River, is the oldest part of the city. By the 1970's,
an industrial wasteland. A club called the Pirate's Cove started
featuring proto Punk bands. Pere Ubu among them. A few decades
later, Cleveland mystery writer Les Roberts painted the Flats as
hip, happening and revitalized. But the rebirth was fueled by
bars and entertainment. Rowdy drunks, a string of drownings and
the overall poverty of Cleveland fizzled it. Bar owners and local
pols went back to the drawing board. Next up-- casinos! If Ohio
voters say yes legalized gambling will come to the Flats.
(Doubtless only soft drinks will be served and low income
Clevelanders won't be encouraged to gamble.) Developer Scott
Wolstein hopes to enhance this vision with a $225 million
residential and retail development and use ED to flatten any
hold-outs. Mayor Jane Campbell is on board with the bulldozers.
Then there's Connecticut. And Texas. Illinois, Missouri and
Florida. As well as many other states. California tops the hit
list. Which suits Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland just fine. Mister
Nice Guy has plans. California Girl and U.S. Representative Nancy
Pelosi positively worships ED. Upon hearing of the June 23rd
Supreme Court decision (Kelo v. City of New London, Connecticut)
which narrowly cleared ED as redevelopment tool, Pelosi declared
it was "almost as if God has spoken."** Of course she didn't say
which God. Horror author H. P. Lovecraft often wrote of a race of
bygone evil deities called the Old Ones; who now exist on another
plane but are always trying to break through time and space and
make earth their home once again. What better way to do it than
by invoking eminent domain?
Since the Supreme Court ruling allows states to make their
own law as to eminent domain, the fight to rein in ED has
metastasized into a nationwide battle. Many states are already
rushing to craft some kind of anti-ED legislation. ED is widely
unpopular and pols want to be seen as standing up for small
property owners. But many of the same pols want the mega
contributions developers and related special interests deliver,
plus the political clout of ambitious development deals and
the federal and state funding that typically flows into them.
Furthermore, those powerful albeit semi-public development
agencies have become a national phenomena and are woven into
layers of state, county and municipal governments. On the
positive side, the Kelo decision has focused attention on how
ubiquitous such agencies have become-- and how removed they
are, both philosophically and in terms of oversight, from
As the ED wars rage it will be interesting to see which states
emulate Utah, which has banned the use of ED by redevelopment
agencies. In Congress, a proposal by New Jersey Rep. Scott
Garrett to deny federal transportation funds to projects using
ED was recently voted down. Though the margin wasn't immense:
231-189. But expect a goodly number of pols to go for legislation
crafted to look tough and concerned, but riddled with holes big
enough to drive a stagecoach through.
OK. I know I'm working the western motif. I got off on the
Sheriff of Wall Street thing and just couldn't let it go. Thank
goodness the New York State gubernatorial election is still more
than a year away; giving me plenty of time to get it out of my
system. Till then podners--
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
"...when you're taking someone's private property and
transferring it to another private owner, we need to be
extremely careful and protective."
New York Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, Eminent domain protections
sought, 07/14/05, Newsday Inc.
"I'm gonna swing me a lasso and ride (ride) till you're roped
Ride, Dee Dee Sharp, 1962
*"Taken" is an older term for government condemnation and eminent
domain. It's also used when describing the experience of people
abducted by extraterrestrials.
**It takes a village...of property owners, 07/21/05, Larry
Elder, 2005 Creators Syndicate Inc.
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