Invoking (a different kind of) blight to take land for Foxconn

The term “blight” is more likely to conjure up images of slums and urban decay (example of Detroit) than farmland and single-family homes. Yet, the Wisconsin village of Mount Pleasant earlier this week invoked blight to take land for a planned Foxconn facility:

Trustees voted 6-1 to declare as a blighted area some 2,800 acres of open farmland and a few dozen homes, all of it earmarked for Foxconn and the development expected to spring up around the planned electronics factory. Trustee Gary Feest was the lone dissenter, and one of only two board members to speak before the vote…

Still, holdouts remain — people who believe the 140 percent of market value the village has offered is unfair when owners of larger tracts of farmland were paid several times the pre-Foxconn price such property was bringing…

As proponents have in the past, DeGroot emphasized not the eminent-domain power the blighted-area designation gives the village, but rather the financial advantages the measure confers. Communities with plans such as the one Mount Pleasant just approved can finance the redevelopment by issuing bonds exempt from both state and federal taxes, which DeGroot said could save the village millions of dollars…

In taking its action Monday, the village is using a section of state law that broadly defines blighted areas. Besides the commonly understood definitions of blight — dilapidated housing, overcrowding, high crime — the statute says an area can be deemed blighted if it is predominantly open and, for any reason, “substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the community.”

Here is the Google Maps satellite image of the Foxconn location (according to news reports). All the farmland is clearly visible.

Google Maps satellite image of Foxconn site

Taking land for a sizable or notable project like this is not always easy. The argument that this is good for the community will not strike all land owners as consonant with their property rights. And there may be some irony later in this story involving property rights. A Democratic gubernatorial candidate will be protesting the use of eminent domain as part of his larger concerns about the project. When Republicans are characterized as supporting both big business and property rights, which one wins? And are Democrats pro-property rights?

While Wisconsin has a slightly different definition of blight, this could be compared to urban renewal plans of the mid-twentieth century that used similar reasoning to mark certain properties as blighted. In both cases, officials and developers have a redevelopment plan for the land that is billed as an improvement for the community. In this case, the trade-off is largely open land for increased local tax revenue and a significant number of jobs. With the urban renewal plans of decades ago, history was not kind to some of the proposals as redevelopment could clear affordable housing units, target minority communities, and accelerate suburbanization (in the cases of highways constructed right through urban neighborhoods). Even without declaring some land as blighted, a project this size could be viewed by some as a significant change to the character of the community. “As many as 13,000 jobs” may sound good but this will affect local traffic, housing, and civic services. I would guess that following up with the community in five, ten, or twenty years could relay both intended and unintended changes if all or most goes as planned with the Foxconn facility.

 

“An urban slum in the countryside” marked by a lack of McMansions

McMansions may be everywhere (including Iraq) but one writer notes their conspicuous absence in the suburbs of Cardiff, Wales:

“Out on what were the squelchy red muds, bluebell woods, beech-clad hillocks and bosky blackberry hedgerows of the ancient parish of Llanederyn, prices have collapsed and nothing sells. Few want to live in a no man’s land 40 minutes by bus from the city centre, an unloved, invisible of executive Mcmansions, roundabouts and superstores, sagging lintels and dripping gutters.”

We also learn that Trowbridge is “shabby and lacklustre” and that Llanederyn’s Maelfa indoor precinct is “a post-apolcalyptic boarded-up no-go zone, spurned by market forces uninterested in poor people.

“Thus was created an urban slum in the countryside.”

Some vivid descriptions that evoke a bleak image. It is interesting to compare this description of bleakness with how such things are discussed in regard to American McMansions. Outside of depictions of “zombie subdivisions” due to unfinished developments or suburban neighborhoods ravaged by foreclosures, American critics of McMansions tend to emphasize their emotional bleakness. Having McMansions implies having plenty of money or resources (or at least the means of acquiring debt). Yet, critics suggest neighborhoods with McMansions lack community, are lonely, project images of power but are empty inside. In the future, all those McMansions may suffer the fate of many homes: people who have moved on to newer and better things, the need for many home repairs, and a lack of exterior sheen due to age. The bleakness is not class-based or like urban blight with empty and boarded-up buildings but rather is based on a lack of soul.

Just how much blight there is in Detroit

A recent report shows the patterns of blight in Detroit:

These numbers come from a report released this week by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force on the results of a manual survey of 377,602 property parcels in the city. Nearly one in three structures in Detroit needs some kind of intervention, according to the analysis. That covers 78,506 structures that the report has deemed “blighted” or showing indicators of blight, as well as 6,135 lots that have effectively become neglected dumping grounds…

“We need to recognize the volume of blighted structures did not happen overnight,” the report declares. “Detroit’s conditions are the physical result of dire economic and social forces that pulled the city apart over many decades.”…

The empty lots, vacant homes and shuttered industrial plants that attest to this exodus are not evenly spread across the city. And so Detroit — as New Orleans did after Hurricane Katrina — will face difficult decisions about where to focus its efforts, prioritizing those places where investment will have the greatest impact on people who still live in the city. By Detroit’s reckoning, no city has ever addressed more than 7,000 blighted structures in a year. The task force is proposing to eradicate all blight in the city in the next five years, lest blight beget more blight, with the problem continuing to spread beyond the city’s ability to keep up…

Detroit Blight Removal Task Force

This could provide an interesting comparison to urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s in numerous major cities that many scholars and residents would see mostly as land grabs. Some of those projects were justified with blight as a cover to push people out. The situation today in Detroit is quite different as there is a large number of blighted properties that not too many people want and few would argue that blight is not a legitimate problem. Of course, as the article notes, these properties drain resources from a city that needs more resources. Yet, dealing with all the blight is not easy…

Charlotte columnist suggests suburbs will face four problems

American suburbs contain the majority of United States residents (and this figure is likely to grow in the latest 2010 Census figures). And yet, there are a lot of questions about what the future of suburbs will be. A columnist/editor in Charlotte suggests suburbs will face four problems in the near future:

Demographics. Population trends favor urban-style, multifamily development. Gen Y’ers have a clear preference, at least for now, for urban living. Meantime, aging boomers will be selling houses and moving to condos or apartments. As illness and infirmity hit, many will have to give up driving. They’ll want walkable neighborhoods.

With the foreclosure crisis, the single-family home market will be sluggish for years. The nation is overbuilt on large-lot suburbia, and underbuilt in cities. The Urban Land Institute’s “Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2011” has this advice to investors: “Avoid commodity, half-finished subdivisions in the suburban outer edge and McMansions; they are so yesterday.”

Fuel prices. Remember when $4-a-gallon gas walloped the economy in 2008? Now, gas prices are over $3 again. Gas prices are likely to keep rising, and already, transportation is the No. 2 cost for average U.S. households. With pay and jobs sinking, more people are likely to want to live where they can drive less.

Carbon footprint. If we’re to avoid creating even more destructive changes in the world’s climate (more droughts, floods, blizzards or heat waves) for our children and grandchildren to live with, more of us will need to live in tight-knit, walkable cities. It turns out city dwellers have a much smaller carbon footprint.

Suburbs on the brink. Although some first-ring suburbs are thriving, others aren’t. Many suburban neighborhoods are seeing rising poverty and crime, dead or dying malls and derelict strip centers and big-box stores. We can’t just abandon them to blight.

These are all possible issues. Some thoughts about each concern:

1. We will have to see what Generation Y and the aging Baby Boomers want in the long term. Will they want to move back to cities or will they be okay with denser suburban development?

2. Fuel prices are up and American driving is down. What happens if most people can access electric cars within 10 years?

3. Carbon footprints – are people convinced that they should change their personal, residential choices based on this evidence? Do Generation Y members choose to live in cities for this reason or for other reasons such as proximity to entertainment and culture.

4. Inner-ring suburbs are experiencing many of the issues that we once thought were limited to cities. Interestingly, a number of these issues are spreading beyond the inner-ring.

The columnist suggests we need to fight the suburban blight, marked by “separate municipalities outside a city, regardless of age or form…development with a specific pattern, typically built after 1945: single-use zones (stores separated from offices and housing, single-family houses apart from apartments); lots a quarter-acre or more; car dependent.”

There are several other issues that many suburban communities face:

5. Budget crunches with the economic crisis leading to a downturn in housing growth. Not much money is coming in and this will lead to cuts in services and amenities.

6. More suburbs reaching build-out and facing questions about whether denser development can fit within a community dominated by single-family homes.

6a. Will American suburbanites want denser development that may threaten their property values?

7. Increasing minority and immigrant populations that challenge the white majority that has dominate American suburban life. Stories like that of a controversy over a proposed mosque in DuPage County could become more common.

8. Of course, lots of empty houses or homes with reduced values (here or here). This limits people’s ability to move, the ability of communities to collect money, and builders and lenders to make money.