Will Eminent Domain Claim An Albany Neighborhood?

Rent Wars (Rentwars)

Thursday, September 18, 2003 - 11:38 am
Will Eminent Domain Claim An Albany Neighborhood?
by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
Special to Rent Wars Forum

To me, the phrase "eminent domain" has always sounded like something a medieval lord might invoke for first night dibs on someone else's bride. Which bears a certain relation to what eminent domain actually is: the right of government to claim private property in the name of the public good. Eminent domain has its legitimate uses. But nationally, concern is rising that eminent domain is being applied too widely and that the "public good" is being used to justify land grabs. With major real estate interests advanced via government power, at the expense of small property owners.

Another concern is that eminent domain is becoming a final solution for urban blight. Where neighborhoods are bulldozed and rebuilt from the ground up, with populations displaced in the process. Many of the displaced being the very people who stuck it out while others fled and who fought to keep the neighborhoods alive. Leading to the question: what makes a neighborhood? Buildings which are ripped out and popped in like Tinker Toys, according to a government master plan? Or the residents whose efforts kept it breathing, often through long years of neglect by the very same government?

My interest in the questions surrounding the use of eminent domain stems from a situation developing in Albany, New York. In a neighborhood called Park South. Park South is a small nabe, roughly a dozen square blocks. Its population has traditionally been mainly blue collar and/or poor. With some students from nearby colleges. The neighborhood has considerably more tenants than owners and is racially mixed. Until about 10 years ago, Park South was a tight knit pleasant place to live. Embodying the best that urban nabes can be. Not really gentrified, but not the wild west either. Then a major slumlord started buying up buildings. Many of his tenants were heavily into the drug biz. Buying and selling. Park South became increasingly violent. Buildings and streets deteriorated. The overall effect was to block bust the neighborhood. In a small area the process moves like wildfire. Property values, never high, sank into the basement. Long time residents, both tenants and owners, fled. Many of the buildings they left behind became part of the slum expansion.

A core of the truly resilient remained. Again, both tenants and owners. One of the striking things about Park South is that loyalty to the neighborhood is broadly rooted-- not just a matter of ownership. A goodly number of both tenants and owners were born in the neighborhood. As deterioration ate at Park South these loyal residents hung on, keeping the neighborhood alive and vibrant. Some even attempted to plug gaps in city services. Forming for instance, a particularly effective Walk & Watch. Albany's city government for almost a decade has been headed by Mayor Jerry Jennings. Many residents of Park South have been less than impressed by Mayor Jenning's treatment of their neighborhood. They say Park South's problems were either ignored, or were fobbed off with promises of improvements that never materialized. Or which did so only briefly. Residents have been complaining for years about crime, garbage and rotting buildings. They've pressed for greater police presence, more frequent garbage removal and consistent enforcement of codes and ordinances. Particularly in relation to slumlord drug warrens. Meanwhile, Mayor Jennings threw his full revitalizing weight into the downtown commercial district. An area heavy with the offices of state government, corporate lobbying outposts and a 9 to 5 commuter population.

But Park South has started to look potentially valuable. The aforementioned nearby schools, plus several hospitals have plans for the neighborhood. The city has set the Albany Local Development Corporation to speed the plow. The possibility of a knock it down and build it up plan is being discussed with a consulting firm, Design Collective, who developed a similar plan in East Baltimore. Though the eminent domain call has not been officially made, highly placed officials in the Jennings administration have referenced it in conversations with neighborhood representatives. One comment being: "Don't bother trying to stop it-- there's nothing you can do". Albany has also recently signed on to the HUD related Asset Control Area Program (ACAP). Which allows units of city governments to aquire (at way below assessed value) and market "distressed" HUD properties in "revitalization areas". If the power of eminent domain and the Asset Control Area Program were combined, it would put a nice chunk of Albany real estate on the table. With the current administration doing the carving, using neighborhood deterioration as rationale. Of course nit pickers might point out that if Park South's problems had been deal with years ago, there would be no such rationale. Hence, nothing to carve.

But hey, what wasn't done is done. A drastic revitalization would indubitably benefit a whole lot of people. If those who are the heart of Park South turn out not to be among them, so be it. We're talking the greater public good here. And who can possibly object to that?

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff