Friday, June 24, 2005

Kelo and Memphis

Lots and lots and lots of discussion across the Internet of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Kelo v. New London case, where the court found that taking property from one person or business to give to another private entity to serve the tax revenue needs of a city is a public good. Mostly, in the major media, the reaction is sensationalistic "The government will take your home!" simpleness.

But what does it mean for Memphis in particular? As it turns out, a lot and none of it much good for the average Memphian.

Had this ruling been in effect during the battle to save Overton Park from I-40 construction, the environmentalists would have lost. The "public good" under the new Kelo ruling is clear. The folks at Friends of Shelby Farms and Friends for Our Riverfront need to keep their lawyers on call. The holdouts among the Overton descendants who oppose the riverfront skyscrapers being built on public Promenade land now have a much harder stream to swim against. In the case of the Promenade, there are clear tax advantages in building all sorts of shops, offices and apartments on the land. In the case of Shelby Farms, the balance is no longer between environmentalists and the County, but between various County plans with the environmentalists standing outside as objectors.

Look downtown. Thanks to the many public-private boards that infest the area, government's hand is now stronger than ever. Remember the fight by small businessmen to preserve their place downtown when Mayor Herenton (actually acting as a front for a lot of more powerful businessmen, developers, bankers, consultants, etc. who stood to profit very handsomely) decided to place the FedUp Forum just west of Union Avenue and AutoZone Park? Other properties were a better fit, and more sensible, but there were cost advantages for the city in terms of infrastructure; and the existing Beale Street "entertainment district" and Peabody Place businesses were looking to "synergise" with expected Forum traffic.

Now look at all that property around the Forum. Empty lots, run down small businesses, a private park, ancient church properties, etc. With a $300+ million dollar investment in the Forum, don't you think the City will be even more ruthless with them in pursuit of more lucrative revenue options? Kelo has weakened the stand of all those small property owners if they choose not to join the bandwagon.

Look at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Regular readers here know that I think the City has long-range plans for that area that begin with intentional benign neglect and end up with lots of public-private partnerships that will create private gated communities and expensive developments on cheaply-bought public property. The folks who live nearby will find their property values soaring so fast they can't pay the already exorbitant property taxes; taxes, by the way, that the new developments will get PILOT exemptions on!

In some ways this kind of redevelopment is good, in that wornout properties get refreshed. But the usual caveat applies. The poor will be pushed out somewhere else. In the case of Memphis, that's north and south, out of the center city loop and into neighborhoods removed from businesses (they were middle-class subdivisions back in the Seventies when they were built) and where the cost of transportation goes up. In the case of the Fairgrounds, this applies double, as the homes between them and the Cooper-Young axis will become prime for redevelopment, especially if the City can push through the appalling Trolley extension. Good for some, bad for the rest.

My main point is that the hand of Memphis City government is strengthened, and that hand has already been shown to have the interests of only the few and powerful in mind. Folks living or operating small businesses around downtown development likely should get out now. The City has made major committments of public money there, which is a prime argument for public takings under Kelo. Folks around the Fairgrounds need to keep a weather eye out; their day is coming in ten years or so, if the City can get back into the fiscal black.

The rest of Memphis? Ah, who cares? Certainly not our civic and political leaders. Just pay the bills, support the approved business districts and keep your mouth shut.

AFTERTHOUGHT I suppose Kelo will even have an effect in the battle between downtown residents and the RACE plant expansion. They city will certainly see increased tax revenues from the expansion, which will likely affect how willing the Land Use Control Board is to change the zoning. Safety concerns aside, Kelo helps to cover the LUCB's ass.

UPDATE SUNDAY 6/26Sure enough, in today's Commercial Appeal, there's a story about the use of eminent domain to get the Promenade rape underway. RDC head Barry Lendermon seems happy.

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