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Real Estate & Property Law

: Kelo and Beyond

The Big Picture

By Greg Alvarez

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Last time we looked at ways that municipalities are using simple tweaks to their local processes to end up with good results for their inhabitants. Even the seemingly most minor choices can have a significant impact. What about choices that can have metropolitan-wide effects on the perception of a community? Oftentimes, this is more important for a community than the reality. From the items I've been finding this week, which prompted my thoughts on such big picture issues, one can see the effect that such decisions can have on an entire region. Take for example the news out of Los Angeles (which doesn't have to do with the writer's strike), where the LA County's Metropolitan Transportation Authority has voted to install turnstiles into their nascent subway and light-rail system. How is this a macro issue, you ask? As one talking head has opined in responding to the news, "Unfortunately, as L.A. gets to be more urban, it has these breakdowns in trust that happen in big cities." Author Joel Kotkin's comment misses the real point to be gained from the move. The result of this seemingly minor policy choice is that LA's transit system has moved into the big time, offering legitimacy by shifting from a little-enforced honor system to one that formalizes the fare-collection process. By investing millions in a seemingly minor aspect of the transit infrastructure, the MTA has established its facilities as a realistic way in which people can move about the seemingly endless metropolis.

Another curious phenomenon has been reported from the edges of Las Vegas, Nevada. In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that shifted money earned by the federal government in selling land in and around the Las Vegas region from a general Treasury account to one strictly devoted to the needs of the State of Nevada. What this has meant in the ensuing decade is that the State has partaken in a massive slush fund that has in turn been used to fuel the explosive development in the Las Vegas region. Intended to replace the sold land with the purchase of environmentally sensitive land, the expenditures from the fund have also gone to projects that foster the metropolis' growth, such as water facilities and community park amenities. As the Mayor of North Las Vegas has admitted, "We've gotten a bit greedy. . . . When your neighboring cities are asking for five times what you are, it tends to make your staff run around looking for projects." What's good for Nevada, is, well, good for Nevada. In the way that the federal government fostered suburban sprawl in the 1950's with FHA-backed mortgages and highway building, this new policy seems to be growing Las Vegas even further into the desert. But just like the LA decision is, the seemingly simple scheme in Las Vegas serves to increase the region's relevance, and thus the perception that it is continuing to grow at staggering rates -- which is also the reality.

Some other curious reports have come out recently, that also attempt to demonstrate how single choices shape the perception of regions. For instance, a recent Brookings Institution report ranked Washington, DC, as the most "walkable" region in the country. The top ranking was largely attributed to the Metro transit system that criss-crosses the region, allowing for transit-oriented development to crowd around the system's stops, creating active streetscapes that people want to perambulate through. Who knows how accurate the DC-based Brookings' study is, but it does again show how one decision can go a long way for a region.

Out of these slices of America comes the realization that public decision-making is no easy task. In addition, no one can predict for certain the impact of policy choices on big picture beliefs amongst the populace. But either way it goes, the perception will become reality. People can, and do, devote their lives to such efforts. Take the recent passing of advocate Eugene Jacobs, a California lawyer dubbed "the father of redevelopment law," who devoted his life to revitalizing downtowns. After a 60-year career, it will be easy to see the victories and losses of his efforts. But spending one's life on such issues points to the fact that the army out there pushing ahead today much take one's pursuits as seriously as the ones that have come before. As long as we follow this approach, we can only hope that the results will be as good, and big, as envisioned.

Full post as published by Kelo and Beyond on December 06, 2007 (boomark / email).

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