Where Have All the Developers Gone?

In the late 1960s, bulldozers flattened the Massachusetts Town of Hull. Summer cottages, single-family homes, a cobbler’s shop, thriving small businesses and a post office fell to the government’s wrecking ball—all in the name of urban renewal.[1]

City officials destroyed the modest 13-acre community on Nantasket Beach with the intention of replacing it with a wealthier one. It was a classic case of the urban renewal movement; the government kicked the working class out of their beachfront properties in order to hand the land over to the affluent. After all, the government claimed, doing so would generate more jobs and taxes and the public would benefit accordingly—the same justification used by the majority of the justices in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London decision.

Only one problem—the plan backfired. Once the government had already bulldozed the neighborhood, a series of proposals hit the drawing boards. First, City officials approved the construction of extravagant, high-end condominiums. That project soon fell through. Then, there were talks of senior housing, followed by discussions of corporate offices, then retail establishments, then a supermarket. Every project failed—and the City continued to possess a prime plot of seaside land with nothing to show for it but a few parking spots in the summer. Today, nearly four decades later, the land still sits vacant—bearing the legacy of jobs, taxes and an entire community destroyed.

Remarkably, a mere few hundred thousand dollars forty years later is about the best the City can hope for, not to mention all the money the government lost by playing real estate broker for decades.

Now, the Hull Redevelopment Authority is coming back to the drawing board to consider yet another private development proposal. This project, spearheaded by developer Stuart Bornstein of Chatham Reality Properties, is slated to create lavish condominiums expected to cost $350,000 and up. He has also entertained discussions about possibly creating a public park on some of the vacant land.

“This will bring the project to closure,” Carl R. Katzeff, chairman of the City’s redevelopment authority, said. “It will deliver a tremendous local and regional asset in terms of the open space and park, and it will bring over $300,000 in revenue to the community.”

Remarkably, a mere few hundred thousand dollars forty years later is about the best the City can hope for, not to mention all the money the government lost by playing real estate broker for decades. Since the 1960s, this prime beachfront property has been used only for summertime parking. It’s not that Bornstein’s new development plan promising to convert the empty land into a lively neighborhood is a bad prospect at this point. It’s that the property was exactly what Bornstein’s now planning before the government abused its power of eminent domain for private development, marking the injustice of the situation. And, of course, there is the sad truth that if history repeats itself as it has for decades, this project could also fail, leaving the government at the drawing board without a viable plan once again.

The Town’s redevelopment fiascos should serve as a lesson to City officials across the United States—especially those who justify the abuse of eminent domain on the exact same grounds as Hull justified its urban renewal program. In fact, even professional planners and developers have long recognized urban renewal programs of the 1960s and 1970s as complete failures.

The destruction of this community on the Massachusetts coast was no doubt a mistake of the past—but local officials throughout the country continue to make that exact same mistake today. They have just replaced the phrase “urban renewal” with equally amorphous synonyms such as “blight removal” or “economic revitalization.” Regardless of the verbiage, it is wrong when the government takes people’s homes and businesses for the benefit of a private developer. And it just rubs salt into the wounds of the victims of eminent domain abuse when these projects fail to meet even the promises and expectations of their supporters, as they often do.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2005 ruling in Kelo v. City of New London, City officials have increasingly targeted modest coastal communities for the government’s wrecking ball. Once again making far-fetched promises of taxes and jobs, redevelopment authorities continue to threaten and file condemnation for private use against homes, businesses and places of worship. Cities and developers recognize that Hull’s urban renewal plan was wrong and a mistake in the 1960s, and the error is just as plain today as it was then. But the lesson may indeed be learned. City officials and legislatures are no doubt remembering Hull and the countless other neighborhoods victimized by urban renewal policies as they consider eminent domain reforms in state capitals across the country.  It is a nationwide movement with national consequences; one the Castle Coalition hopes they will get right—before they destroy even more.