Substantial Public Input Muscles Its Way Into the Urban Revitalization Process

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 28, 2005

A few decades ago, redeveloping a portion of a city could be relatively simple. Today, carrying out large-scale redevelopment, such as that envisioned for the site of the recently demolished D.C. convention center, has become extraordinarily complex.

Municipal authorities once enjoyed a relatively free hand in reshaping neighborhoods they thought needed a make-over, whether land was already vacant or was cleared of structures.

Office holders thought most citizens expected such projects. Both voters and public officials were more than willing to trust the recommendations of professionals as to how urban redevelopment should be designed, financed and carried out.

In those days gone by, cities could readily draw up plans, float bonds, obtain federal funds, condemn properties, demolish buildings, close streets and construct freeways with a couple of public hearings and relatively little opposition. Ambitious urban redevelopment czars could offer parcels to private developers, at prices well below market value, with minimal public scrutiny. Getting building permits was no big deal.

Now there are many more stakeholders, more regulations and regulators, more meetings and more accountability. The redevelopment process takes much longer and may involve countless cycles of planning and re-planning in response to dynamic political and economic forces, and to competing interests.

Controversy and delays associated with the former convention center site show the challenges of redevelopment.

Another and even clearer example of extreme redevelopment complexity is the Byzantine, ongoing saga of Ground Zero in New York, the site of the World Trade Center demolished by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.

With plans and projects currently stalled, the saga's plot thickened last week. As an alternative to those stalled plans and projects, Donald Trump unveiled an absurd but unmistakably Trump-ish proposal for Ground Zero: rebuilding the twin towers.

If Trump can jump in, why not others, especially those who previously made proposals that were, in fact, more viable than the plan now in limbo?

Like many who observed and some who participated in efforts to plan the future of Ground Zero, I find none of this surprising. Figuring out what to do with 16 acres of land in lower Manhattan has been a tortured, messy process.

Perhaps messiness was inevitable.

Legal dominion over the land was divided among multiple, competing public agencies -- the city, the state and the Port Authority -- and multiple real estate ownership and leasing interests. Added to this were the interests and influence of civic groups and organizations, plus local businesses.

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