Tuesday, May 31, 2005


Thou shalt not covet

It appears that Gentle "Jim" Day won't lose his auto repair shop, after all.

Day, the son of Arkansas sharecroppers, started from scratch to build up his own garage in what is now St. Louis' burgeoning arts district. For 20 years, he paid $1,222 per month on his mortgage on the shop at Olive Street and Spring Avenue. No sooner had he paid it off and taken title than he was told he would have to go.

You see old, noisy garages don't belong in burgeoning arts districts. It would be too upsetting for symphony and modern art patrons to be forced to walk past some mechanic in grease-stained coveralls installing new brake pads on a Hyundai. Or so believes Grand Center, a nonprofit charged by the city of St. Louis with redeveloping the area.

So with eminent domain powers in hand, Grand Center told Day they would be buying him out, and his property turned over to a private developer. In place of his garage would rise something more useful like, say, a "media box." What's a media box, you ask? Well, I'm not really sure, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch decribes it as "a design studio and residential units that would have some sort of 'multimedia component.'" Mere speculation on my part, but I envision workspaces where 22-year-old nerds play ping-pong and recline in massage chairs in between bouts of creative verve.

As it turns out, Grand Center board members voted last week to drop its eminent domain suit. So I guess Day can get back to fixing cars, and we can all let the matter rest, right?

Well, unfortunately, no.

The problem is this issue of eminent domain, which allows government entities to force individuals to sell their property for a fair price if the said propery is to be used for "public use." This legal provision is in our Constitution, and public agencies have used it to build the highways, schools, parks, lakes and other amenities we all enjoy. Sounds reasonable so far. The only problem, however, is that over the past decade, an increasing number of public entities, mostly municipalities, have vastly expanded their interpretation of that expression "public use." In essence, some believe that taking one's property and handing it over to a private developer for a privately owned business enterprise can be in the public's interest. The U.S. Supreme Court currently is pondering just this issue and might present a ruling any day.

Consider what some cities say constitute the public interest:

* In New London, Conn., the city has been trying through eminent domain to seize 115 properties in a waterfront area to be redeveloped into high-end condos and research facility for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
* In Mesa, Ariz., Ken Lenhart, the owner of a downtown hardware store, approached the city council with the idea of forcing Randy Bailey, the owner of a nearby brake shop, to use eminent domain to seize Bailey's property and sell it to Lenhart at the bargain basement price of $4 per square foot. Lenhart wants the land to relocate his store to a better location.
* Here in the St. Louis area, the municipality of Sunset Hills has condemned an entire neighborhood so a developer can build a "lifestyle center," currently the hot concept in retail, combining upscale retail with dining and entertainment.

These aren't isolated cases. The Castle Coalition, a group dedicated to fighting eminent domain land grabs, has documented more than 10,000 such cases in recent years. And I should say, the cities' position on this issue is not entirely indefensible. Most of these cases occurred in older suburbs bypassed and made almost obselete by today's urban sprawl monster. In many of these landlocked municipalities, the rationale goes, if some land can be redeveloped for upascale purposes, then the redevelopment will spread out, the city will blossom anew and the tax base will expand. Since there are usually no large undeveloped tracts to be had in such places, eminent domain is often the only means to providing sufficient land.

It's certainly understandable. Yet, it still stinks. In so many of these cases, certain individuals, either homeowners or business owners were deemed unfit for this new vision. Imagine having a lawyer knock on your door telling you to take a hike, that you don't fit the desirable demographic being sought. In so many cases, people have lost their homes and businesses of several decades.

It happened just blocks from my house here in South City. The bulldozers are already making way for a brand-new Schnuck's supermarket and Lowe's home improvement center to be joined by a so-far unnamed third big retailer. Along with an abandoned HVAC equipment factory and a current Schnuck's, about 20 houses and an athletic club face the wrecking ball. The city booted these folks out and sold the property back to a developer.

A real selfish side of me has welcomed the new retail. After all, it'll be nice having a larger, more-upscale Schnuck's nearby, and the idea of a Lowe's mere blocks from the house will be so convenient. On top of that, a real civic-minded side of me is glad to see new retail and tax base in a rustbelt city battered by 50 years of decline. Seriously, this is no small feat.

Yet I drive by the houses, which have only been vacated in the past few weeks. They stand empty and boarded up, graffiti already marring facades, weeds already in the yards. These were modest homes, but handsome, nicely kept and well-crafted, most of them 70-100 years old. In a few houses, entire generations of the same family had spent their whole lives. The athletic club, which had fielded baseball, softball and soccer teams since the 1940s, isn't searching for a new location; they're simply calling it quits. Thus a large part of my neighborhood has been ripped out. And there's the idea that my house was missed by a mere blocks.

I suppose one man's high-end development is another man's eviction notice.

In a case of strange bedfellows, liberals and conservatives alike have united against these highhanded grabs. You can learn more from these organizations:

The Castle Coalition: http://www.castlecoalition.org/
Reason magazine: http://reason.com/0302/fe.ss.wrecking.shtml
Here's a transcript of a story on this issue that appeared about a year ago on 60 Minutes:

Lagniappe, as they call it in New Orleans

David Brooks has a good column today on what happens when liberals and conservatives put aside the silliness and actually work together to do something good. Click here:

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