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Eminent Domain is a Tool, Not a Conspiracy

There is nothing evil about eminent domain.

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The notion that government is a bunch of aliens who came down from Mars and acquired these secretive massive powers may be true in Washington, but in my experience it has never been true at a local level, where governments make mistakes, but are incapable of taking on conspiracies against the little people.

Eminent domain is a tool. Whose hands that tool is in determines whether or not is used for what people may see as “good” or “bad.” The political process is defined by public participation or unfortunately, the lack thereof. Whether government makes the right decision or wrong decision is not a function of the tools that are wielded, but of the process.

When it comes to the issue of eminent domain, I think we are seeing a pendulum swing.

In New York City, we have a uniform land use procedure, known as ULURP, because there was the backlash against the unfettered powers wielded by Robert Moses in building roads, bridges, and other projects. The ULURP process was the people’s way of saying to their government, “Wait a minute, you cannot just make these decisions and slash through our communities.” As good and decent as roads may be, you have to ask people what they think. And there has to be a process where people get to say what they think. So our land use procedure was born.

My fear is that now that we have integrated a way for the voices of the local communities to be heard in the process – which is very good and desirable thing – that many of these voices have become advocates for community museums.

There is a notion that communities should never change - that they are sacrosanct the way they are. I think that is a troubling swing of the pendulum in the other direction. I think we should think about what that entails.

I agree that a lot of urban renewal projects of the past have been failures. But I do not think they have been failures because of eminent domain. They are failures because of bad planning.

Bad planning comes from the inability of government and the public to think and act coherently in relation to decisions about the future. Planning is about the future, and it is always at odds with the immediacy of political decision-making and land use changes that affect the people who are there right now. That is where government has to strike a balance. Everything can’t be a beauty contest. Everything can’t be decided on the popularity of a decision.

If that were the case, we would never build a homeless shelter or even a high school; we would only build elementary schools because no one wants teenagers near them.

We are seeing this in our garbage crisis. We can’t have a landfill. We can’t build marine transfer stations. And we can’t burn garbage. And we don’t recycle very well either. So I’m not sure where that takes us.

All of these things are about land use changes, and in New York, that is always a complex issue.

In many projects eminent domain is not being used to eliminate “blight” like urban renewal projects of the past, but to generate jobs and taxes into the future.

We don’t live in a country where the federal government supports all of these local uses, like schools and police. We have to come up with those dollars ourselves. I agree that there has to be constraint on eminent domain decisions, just as there has to be constraint on anything that government does. But we shouldn’t think that these projects are “bad” just because they are the work of private developers. We need to have these kinds of uses to generate jobs and taxes.

Jerilyn Perine is the president of Block by Block LLC. She served as Commissioner of New York City Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Her remarks were adapted from an address at a recent event at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and the New York Metro Chapter of the American Planning Association.


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