Urban Renewal in Retrospect

On the negative side there seems little argument about the human costs of Urban Renewal. The paralyzing effect of impending renewal action seems less important in retrospect, since once the project has been completed the effect disappears. Somehow, the argument regarding the incubator role of the city also seems less powerful in retrospect, since many cities still retained large amounts of cheap space after Urban Renewal.

On the positive side, what can be said? Probably the biggest gain has been that Urban Renewal projects gave many cities the ability to compete with their suburbs. For example, White Plains, New York (as noted in Chapter 9) has grown as a retailing center in an age when most cities have been losing retail sales and jobs to the suburbs. Clearly, it was the new and efficient street pattern and the availability of large, cleared parcels of land with marketable titles at below cost that made it possible for White Plains to swim against the tide. Without Urban Renewal most of the retailing activity now in downtown White Plains would be out on the highway.

One of Manhattan's big selling points as a commercial and residential location is its pre-eminence as a cultural center. A part of that pre-eminence resides in Lincoln Center, a cultural complex built as an Urban Renewal project on several blocks of deteriorated residential structures.

The Boston waterfront, redeveloped as part of the city's Urban Renewal program, pulls in millions of tourist dollars and also makes the city more attractive as a residence for a young and affluent population which might otherwise settle in the suburbs. In that sense it acts as a promoter of "gentrification," a trend that most cities, rightly or wrongly, seem to welcome.7

Writing in the 1960s, Charles Abrams stated of Urban Renewal,

It [Urban Renewal] allows room for more squares and parking spaces and is a useful tool for the long overdue rebuilding of cities enslaved to the 20- to 25-foot lot, and the gridiron pattern. It provides the opportunity for enlarging the street system surrounding the new projects, the closing of streets where necessary, the diversion of traffic, the addition of streets or widening of intersections. It facilitates running the new highways into the city's shopping centers and the creation of off-street parking and enclosed parking space. In short, the renewal project supplies a multipurpose opportunity in place of the piecemeal efforts to correct traffic problems, provide playgrounds and open spaces, provide neighborhood amenities, and new housing public and private.8

In referring to the failure of firms that were unable to compete successfully, economist Joseph Schumpeter applauded the "creative destruction" of capitalism. At its best, Urban Renewal was creative destruction. It tore away an old and obsolescent urban fabric and replaced it with something newer and brighter, and, often, more economically viable. But such destruction is not without pain to individuals and enterprises. Reasonable people may differ over whether the gains justified the pain.

Although the Urban Renewal program is no more, its basic elements of the use of public funds and the power of eminent domain to solve the land assembly problem and the transfer of property so acquired to private parties who will invest in its development are still fundamental to many public redevelopment projects. The transfer of property from one private party to another has become more problematic as a result of the public and then the legislative reaction to the Kelo decision discussed in Chapter 5.

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