In his commentary (“Eminent domain won't bring back Motown”, Nov. 5) Jeffrey Redfern takes aim at my view that the use of eminent domain in Detroit is necessary to put nearly 30 square miles of checkered vacant land back into productive use to rebuild the city's economy and provide relief to its vulnerable population. Detroit has the highest poverty rate and one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. It's median family income for a family of four of $25,000 is half the national average. Many Detroit residents cannot pay taxes, water bills or the costs of daily life necessities. Unlike Redfern's Connecticut example, Detroit is unique in having more vacant lots and houses than any other city in the country. Redfern is making the case for speculators and investors to hold up the city's redevelopment for exorbitant profits on properties most bought at tax foreclosure fire sale prices.
There are two reasons for using eminent domain, if private purchases cannot be negotiated: (1) to increase jobs for city residents and (2) provide an avenue out of disseminated neighborhoods for those who are trapped there. Unless all of the land for a project can be acquired it will not occur. If there is no project, beleaguered residents will eventually receive little if anything for their property and continue to face unacceptable living conditions. Redfern's speculators and investors hold the cards.
Detroit's economic development requires assembling large development sites for private investment that are not available today in the city, with the exception of the State Fair Grounds, closed school sites and public parks. Attempts to privately assemble large sites have taken years with exorbitant prices being demanded by investors and speculators. In some cases, holdouts remain. Ilitch Holdings worked for two decades in privately negotiating the 400 acres of the Detroit District. More than a decade was required for the Henry Ford Health System to expand its medical facilities south of Grand Boulevard and Marathon Oil to create a buffer zone next to its facilities in Southwest Detroit.
If the city is to compete with other areas of the country for new economic development facilities, eminent domain will be required to greatly shorten land acquisition. The new Gordie Howe international bridge could not be built without eminent domain, nor could the GM Hamtramck or Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plants, the only two remaining large auto plants in the city, providing thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in taxes for the past thirty years.
The Michigan Constitution prohibits the use of eminent domain for economic development. However, the constitution allows eminent domain to be used to eliminate blight. Many privately owned parcels in abandoned areas are blighted, but some are not. The law is not clear on whether those not blighted can be taken along with those that are to assemble an area for new development. California protects only residents who have lived in their homes for one year and not investors and speculators. The Michigan constitution should be amended to do the same. Homeowners deserve to be compensated at whatever level they choose. Redfern's speculators and investors are the problem.
John E. Mogk
professor of law, Wayne Law School