Reflections on the Demise of Redevelopment in California

If you stop and think about it, there isn’t all that much to say about the California Supreme Court’s endorsement of the Legislature’s abolition of redevelopment agencies in California, except maybe to ask rhetorically what took them so long?

Whatever the motivation behind urban redevelopment back in the olden days when it was promoted as slum clearance, in time it became an out-and-out racket. Don’t take our word for it. In the words of Zev Yaroslavsky, Los Angeles County Supervisor, and former member of the Los Angeles City Council, as reported by today’s Los Angeles Times:

The projects “had nothing to do with reversing blight, but everything to do with subsidizing private real estate ventures that otherwise made no economic sense,” Yaroslavsky said. Redevelopment over the years “evolved into a honey pot that was tapped to underwrite billions of dollars worth of commercial and other for-profit projects.”,0,7617164.story

You can find a more detailed discusion of our views  in Gideon Kanner, “Fairness and Equity,” or Judicial Bait-and-Switch? It’s Time to Reform the Law of “Just” Compensation, 4 Albany Gov’t L. Rev. 38 (2011) — we commend to our readers’ attention the part at pp. 67-73, subtitled Has Redevelopment Been Worth It? We particularly urge our readers to peruse the part at pp. 69-71, which enumerates the factors that inspired urban populations to move to the suburbs . The fundamental, insoluble problem with post-WW II urban blight, and with the redevelopment undertaken in order to cure it, has been the fact that even as in the aftermath of the wretched Supreme Court opinion in Berman v. Parker, an army of bulldozers started rumbling through American cities, tearing down low and moderately-priced housing, displacing hundreds of thousands of innocent people annually under conditions of undercompensation, Americans were moving out of cities en masse. They left behind worse urban conditions than the ones that were used as the basis for redevelopment. If you need to be convinced take a look at the online pictures of today’s Detroit. Of course, redevelopment was not the sole cause of this migration; government policy encouraging and subsidizing suburban living was a bigger factor.  But however motivated, the results became obvious. In older American cities, entire blocks were reduced to uninhabited rubble and there is no arguing with that. Redevelopment didn’t make a dent in the problem. Take a look at Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Gary, Camden, Bridgeport, Flint, Newark and even Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, St. Louis and Oklahoma City, and you’ll get an idea of the enormity of this problem. This process intensified as urban conditions grew worse and law enforcement (particularly in the 1970s) less effective. Urban freeways contributed by taking out large areas in cities, and replacing urban dwellings with rights-of-way,  interchanges and parking lots. Add to that urban riots that began in the 1960s, and the impact of forced student bussing, and what you have is a set of irresistible motives for the middle class — the urban backbone — to move out of cities to the suburbs.  Between 1950 and 1968, 2.38 million housing untits were destroyed by redevelopment. By the mid-1960s, some 111,000 families and 17,800 businesses were destroyed by eminent domain annually. As amply documented by Bureau of Census statistics, and  in recent writings of Joel Kotkin, this urban out-migration process continues until this day, with only a small trickle of empty nesters and trendy yuppies moving the other way. People find living in the suburbs more pleasant and economically more attractive (even today) so they vote with their feet to get away from blighted cities.

So as the 20th century wore on, the bulldozer model of  urban redevelopment became not only an ineffective but also a hopelessly misguided process that often did more harm than good. Jane Jacobs who harshly criticized it in her book THE DEATH AND LIFE OF AMERICAN CITIES, is now widely acknowledged to have been right.

Also, Lord Acton got it right – power corrupts. So with the enormous and de facto unreviewable power casually conferred by the courts on redevelopment agencies, it didn’t take long for the process to become corrupted — instead of clearing slums, it became a device for wresting wanted urban land with development potential from its rightful owners, and reconveying it to municipally favored redevelopers under cover of the assertion that some of the fruits of their financial success would trickle down to the community, and thus the process could be judicially stuffed into the rubric of “public purpose” that according to Justice Stevens’ Kelo opinion was a “more accurate” meaning, no less, of the “public use” specified in the Constitution. For a wonderful, albeit unintended, illustration of this point read Professor George Lefcoe’s article, Finding the Blight That’s Right for California Redevelopment Law, 52 Hastings L. J. 991, in which he, a gung-ho supporter of redevelopment, candidly confessed that by the term “blight that’s right” (an expression first coined by Bernard Frieden and Lynn Sagalyn in their book DOWNTOWN, INC. – HOW AMERICA REBUILDS CITIES) redevelopers mean, not blighted urban land — they won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. What they want is an area that is sufficiently downscale to pass muster before condemnor-minded judges as “blighted,” yet sufficiently upscale to be of interest to would be redevelopers whose projects, after all, depend on the presence of people who are able to patronize their newly built shopping malls, car dealerships and office buildings. The urban poor don’t qualify, so land in areas populated by them is of no interest, and genuine slums go without redevelopment. The headline of a New York Times story tells it all: Andrew Jacobs, A City Revived but With Buildings Falling Right and Left, N.Y. Times, Aug. 20, 2000, at p. A14, reporting that in Philadelphia, in spite of redevelopment activity downtown, old rotten buildings have been literally falling down in less favored parts of the city.

So redevelopment has been, if not a failure, then at least a process that exacted an intolerable price from American urban society. So as we conteplate the demise of redevelopment in California, the phrase “good riddance” comes to mind. From now on (assuming the new robber barons who have feasted on the misery of people displaced by their subsidized grandiose schemes, fail to get the California legislature to reverse itself) urban redevelopers won’t be able to ride on the backs of powerless urban populations; they will have to pay the true cost of doing business and of rebuilding cities. And Costco will have to pay the true cost of its big-box stores.  Oh, the horror of it!

Follow up: As you no doubt surmise, the outpouring of “serves-’em-right” and “the-end-of-the-world-is-upon-us” writings has begun. For a good collection (with links) check out Good stuff, that. Our favorite is a piece by former California Deputy Attorney General and our erstwhile intellectual adversary Richard Frank on (link included in the post) who concludes his post with this gem of a line: “Political pundits and land use experts will debate the legacy of California redevelopment agencies, a conversation that will be both robust and useful. But it seems indisputable that the redevelopment community’s actions over the past six years have set a new standard for political tone-deafness and ineptitude.” Well said, Rick. But then, even overlooking the wisdom of Lord Acton, it is said that pride goes before the fall. But Frank forgot to mention that the track record of redevelopment agencies has also consistently set a new low for civic (and ordinary, garden variety) morality. At least the fictional Robin Hood had the flimsy excuse that he robbed the rich for the benefit of local villeins, though in reality he did nothing of the sort. But redevelopment agencies have consistently robbed the poor (and the taxpayers) for the benefit of the very rich to whom they reconveyed the land taken by them, at a discount or free of charge, calling it “land writedown.” So even if you are a lefty redistributionist type who rails against the government stuffing the pockerts of the rich, your civic and moral values should cause you to upchuck over that one.




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