The articles in the January 2006 issue of Chronicles (“The Promise of American Life: Small Is Beautiful”) concerning eminent domain and corporate development in the name of public good are characterized by political acumen and cogent cultural observations.  Their strong criticisms are warranted.  I recall Charles Péguy’s reply when someone quoted to him the Gospel warning against judging: “I don’t judge; I blame.”

Scott P. Richert’s analysis in “Think Locally, Act Locally” (Views) of Kelo v. City of New London in the context of “New Federalism” treats well the constitutional implications of the decision and its practical effects at the state level, underlining how powerful commercial interests can take advantage of the new, broader application of the eminent-domain clause.  Tom Landess’s summary in “Outgrowing the Past” (Views) of the federal seizure of private properties along the Savannah River in 1951 is similarly useful, emphasizing the effects on citizens whose property was condemned.  As vast public or quasi-public land developments have multiplied and new rationales for them have been devised (often what Chilton Williamson, Jr., terms in The Hundredth Meridian “thievery by legal means”), the example remains pertinent.  As Mr. Landess points out, the deplorable cultural effects of such ventures persist long after the event.  When small communities are destroyed or undermined, they do not revive elsewhere; valuable traditions and ties are weakened.  In addition, the former property owners and their descendants have been robbed of the freedom to use their holdings or profit from increases in land values.

Whereas in the outrageous Kelo decision, as every commentator on it in Chronicles has noted, and in the 1981 Pole-town decision, which Mr. Richert discusses, there is no pretext of broad general interest, at least the reasons averred for the Savannah River project were those of national defense.  Similarly, countless abusive (and hugely expensive) water projects in the West were carried out for what purported to be public weal.  In fact, these projects, underwritten at great public cost, were mostly, according to Marc Reisner, in Cadillac Desert, “built on the most minuscule foundations of economic rationality and need.”  Many were “cash register dams,” intended to offset other planned losses.

Kelo relieves planners from pleading the general weal.  But as readers are well aware, commercial strong-arming, often with the collusion of local governments, has flourished without such legalization.  In Grand County, Colorado, the town of Winter Park supported the building of a shopping complex that required condemning small businesses, including a restaurant in a railroad car that was nearly paid for.  The town argued that the owner could rent space in the new center.  Unfortunately, the rent was far too high for her.  Over the protests of the county school board, Winter Park later used tax-increment financing to build a parking garage, for which cabins and houses were condemned; when the town could not make the payments, a Denver bank absorbed the loss.

With or without such government complicity, corporate expansion into small communities harms many local interests.  When Safeway moved into Fraser, in the same county, the drug store, a local grocery store, and other small businesses closed.  Then when City Market established a store in Granby, it cut the Fraser sales tax by nearly half and put out of business the Granby and Grand Lake drugstores, florists’ shops, and others.  “This is not healthy,” writes my cousin Jean Hill Miller.  “At least that is what many of us think.  Now, if you are a real estate developer or a county commissioner and you see dollar signs before your eyes, you may sing another tune.”

On a much vaster scale, Brooklyn developer Bruce Ratner’s current plans to build a huge complex of housing—not necessarily the sort needed—and an arena have met stiff opposition but gained the support of the Empire State Development Corporation, justly accused by opponents of being “friendly,” although it should remain neutral.  Ratner intends to invoke eminent domain to obtain properties he does not yet own, using “blight” as an excuse.  (See the website “Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn,”

Wal-Mart, America’s premier bullying corporation, is famous for abusive expansion.  In the Denver suburb of Wheat Ridge, the corporation, with the support of the town council, wanted to take a section of a favorite neighborhood park and partly fill its lake.  Happily, the council had to back down when residents protested.  In Donaldsonville, Louisiana, a new Wal-Mart muscled its way in and, predictably, drove out local businesses; later the corporation closed the store, considered not profitable enough, leaving the town with much reduced shopping and a lowered tax base.  In New Orleans, developers (naming themselves “Historic Restoration Inc.”) succeeded in getting a giant Wal-Mart approved in an historic city neighborhood, the Lower Garden District, after the St. Thomas public housing project was razed.  This approval was obtained from the City Council with the combined backing of those who stood to gain greatly thereby (corporation and local entrepreneurs) and others who argued, partly on racial grounds, that inner-city residents should have the same commercial offerings that suburbanites enjoy.  As an appealing part of the agreement, 1,100 residential units were planned, though only 20 percent would be low income.  The federal, state, and city governments would all contribute directly.  Both sales and property taxes would be diverted to pay off the millions in bonds.  Certain historic buildings, one with important African-American connections, would be demolished.  (This proposal was subsequently retracted.)

Strong opposition came from merchants along Magazine Street.  (According to Preservation in Print, October 2001, a minimum of 75 percent of a new Wal-Mart’s sales are taken away from existing retail businesses, and, because the corporation purchases few goods and services locally, the economic multiplier is reduced.)  Other opponents included residents of the nearby Coliseum Square neighborhood, with its old churches and 19th-century houses; adversaries of spot zoning; many others concerned with preserving features and traditions of the neighborhood; those distressed by net tax losses; and advocates for the poor who insisted that the supposed advantages of the project (new jobs and housing, lower prices) would remain unrealized or be outweighed by the drawbacks, including difficulty of access to many it was supposed to serve.

That Wal-Mart had to reduce the size of the store, abandon certain other plans, and provide an attractive façade and parking-area grille was a small victory for its opponents; but the store is there, as well as the precedent, now in every local developer’s mind.  As for the housing, according to the Housing Authority of New Orleans, only 296 rental units have been built so far.  In this post-Katrina period, the example is particularly dismaying; with the expanded local powers of eminent domain now recognized by the courts, developers are doubtless standing in line to push for-profit reconstruction plans that may rely on condemning private property or misuse of public land and conflict with the city’s historic character and ambiance.

        —Catharine Savage Brosman
New Orleans, LA