Repeating Eminent Domain Failures in Detroit?

Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result each time. Case in point: Wayne State University professor John Mogk has written an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press (Detroit Still Needs Eminent Domain, Freep.com, August 5, 2010) proposing the antic notion that what Detroit needs is widespread use of eminent domain to acquire all that vacant land sitting there, land that has been abandoned en masse by its erstwhile population that sensibly moved elsewhere, and then assemble it into large manufacturing plant sites.

Never mind that recent history of Detroit is a history of doing just that, only to fail dismally. Never mind also, that this proposal passes in silence over the likely cost of such a caper. Who is going to pay for it? Detroit is broke and has had to shut down schools and parks lately. 

Just to remind you, it was Detroit that in the 1980s used (or more accurately abused) the power of eminent domain in the notorious Poletown case. There, it blew $200,000,000 to condemn 400 acres of urban land in order to turn it over to General Motors for a new Cadillac plant. This caper displaced 1200 households, 100 businesses, 16 churches, and a major hospital. GM got the site for $6,500,000. What a deal! It also got a 50% tax abatement that enabled it to save $5.4million annually over a period of 12 years. And yet, Professor Mogk calls that urban and civic disaster an “industrial jewel.” So did it at least work? Don’t be silly. The projected 6000 jobs never materialized, and most of the time GM did not even manage to employ half that number at the Poletown plant. And as we need not remind you, in the long run GM went bankrupt.  

And of course, what’s good for General Motors is good for Chrysler which got a similar deal from the city in the Vavro case. And you know how much good that did. Chrysler too went bankrupt, and is having problems even now, so that its continued viability is something less than a sure bet. 

What Detroit did accomplish with its use of eminent domain was to give rise to decisional law taking it to task for abusing its powers, and deliberately creating blight so it would have an excuse to condemn the subject land for a pittance. See Foster v. City of Detroit, 254 F.Supp. 655, affirmed, 405 F.2d 128 (1968), and In re Urban Renewal, Elmwood Park, 136 N.W.2d 896 (1965).

But it appears that in spite of these urban calamities, the lesson has not been learned, even though Detroit’s decades-long use of eminent domain to redevelop itself has produced an urban disaster of unprecedented proportions – those folks out there are now seriously discussing the plowing under of what’s left of much of the city and devoting the vacant land to truck farming. No, we are not making this up. See Susan Saulny, Razing the City to Save the City, N.Y. Times, June 21, 2010, at p. A16. 

To appreciate the devastation that the city’s past policies (including its frequent use of eminent domain for redevelopment) have brought upon Detroit, see the October 5, 2009, cover story in TIME magazine (Daniel Okrent, Notown, at p. 26. And don’t miss the pictures of the post-apocalyptic cityscape of what is left of today’s Detroit. See http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1864272_1810098,00.html

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so do take a look at those pictures and see for yourself. Is that where you would want to move yourself or your business?

Follow up. We just came across another article by Catherine J. LaCroix, Urban Agriculture and Other Green Uses: Remaking the Shrinking City, 42 Urban Lawyer 225 (Spring 2010). It promotes the idea of converting “shrinking cities” into agriculturally productive areas. Does that mean that Professor LaCroix will engage in an intellectual duel with Professor Mogk over which use should be chosen? We can’t wait.

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