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Real Estate & Property Law

: Kelo and Beyond

So, How've You Been?

By Greg Alvarez, Esq.

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Okay, so things are scary out there these days, with no real end in sight. As with everyone, I'm touched by the craziness happening in the kooky place we call "the market." My wife is an AIG employee, and it seems my clients are just as distressed by the economic woes even if they aren't asking for a multi-billion dollar bailout/rescue/golden parachute/handout. But despite it all, it is heartening to know that we can still find the time to squabble over the newest big development to come into town, and on the other side of the ledger, work together to improve our collective built-up environment. Let's start with the heartwarming side of the coin, in Rochester, New York, of all places. The city's Regional Transit Service has actually decided to reduce the price of a fare on its buses, from $1.25 to a buck. How have they done it? By responding to the demands of the marketplace, no less. And a little ingenuity. The agency has reached out to institutions reliant on the system, like the public school district, colleges and businesses, to pay for its riders. The local state representative was able to lobby for more funding. And the leaders of the transit organization adjusted its routes to meet demand, and eliminated routes that people didn't use. Sure, it's a tiny system in comparison to other behemoths like New York City to the south, but the Rochester approach does suggest a way that public transit can work, and actually turn a profit.

How about in such places as Los Angeles, Seattle and Baltimore, where alleys are back. Once destined for suspicious, if not criminal type behavior, alleyways are being reborn as places to stow garages so that homes can have porches again out in front, spaces to help to reduce dirty runoff and locales where greenways return to the urban landscape. Researchers at the University of Southern California are looking at how the poorer neighborhoods of their region can benefit from underused alleys. Over the last few decades, a piecemeal city program attempted to improve things by gating off troubled alleys. Some turned into park-like settings for local residents -- a veritable Gramercy Park in South L.A. -- while others ended up being abandoned wastelands. One caretaker, sixty-nine year old Virginia Beck, patrols her prized alley she planted herself, and keeps a .38-caliber pistol in her bedroom just in case.

How about in the Adirondacks of upstate New York, where a 14,600-acre swath southwest of the Olympic village of Lake Placid has been purchased by the Nature Conservancy to eventually add to the Adirondack Forest Preserve. It will become part of the larger Adirondack Park, which is still a stitched-together expanse that also includes 103 towns and villages. The park is an attempt to restore nature alongside the needs of residents. In another rejection of expanding into the green hinterlands, a report from Canada depicts the continuing trend of people eschewing the suburbs in favor of more urban type living. Trading square footage for shorter commutes and longer time to spend at home, families are moving back to the city, and trying to bring others with them, sending real estate listings back to their suburban friends. And how about across the other border, in Mexico City, where Sundays mean bicicletas, or bicycles, and other non-engine driven modes of transport, which take over numerous roadways in the megacity's historic district. Once a month, Mayor Marcelo Ebrard also unleashes the Cicloton, a 20-mile course for bicyclists to roam free. As many as 70,000 cyclists have been drawn to this urban grand prix course for bike riders. The hope is that people will carry over to using their bikes during the week.

But in this year of the election, people cannot forget to squabble over differences of opinion on how we should live amongst our structures and infrastructure. Not even the Obama/McCain conversation has been immune. For instance, McCain's bubbly running mate, Sarah Palin, had to face a bit of scrutiny over not just her naming of Supreme Court cases, but also the look of her beloved Wasilla, Alaska, which she governed as Mayor before hitting the big time. One commentator took a trip to Wasilla, and found something other than a "quaint mountain village." Instead, he had this to say: "Some towns have character. Some have a sense of place. And then there is Wasilla, which greets visitors with Wal-mart, Target, Lowe's Kentucky Fried Chicken, Carl's Jr., McDonald's and Taco Bell. They paved paradise, and all they've got to show for it is chalupas and discount tube socks." At the end, he compared the planning prowess of Wasilla's representatives to that of Los Angeles. Well, we didn't exactly expect Palin to be a green candidate, with that whole moose meets helicopter thing.

But aside from the election, people have still found time to keep tabs on what developers are trying to do out in the world. For instance, in Dubai, environmentalists have voiced strong objections to a new $1.5 billion hotel built on a man made island shaped like a palm tree. Intended to be a family destination, the Atlantic hotel and resort, like its sister resort in the Bahamas, is part of a targeted plan by Dubai to be a tourist destination once the oil is gone. The Palm Jumeirah island is only one of a handful to be placed in the Persian Gulf. Among other claims, the objections to the project include that the island itself will damage coral reefs and change water currents. In addition, Atlantis, as an ocean-themed resort, will have a huge water tank which will include a full range of creatures, including dolphins that had to be flown in from the Solomon Islands. In India, a larger battle looms over the push to industrialize, against the needs of subsistence farmers to retain their farmland to live. Scarce real estate is being fought over in a process that will result in the path the subcontinent will seek over the course of the coming decades. At the heart of it all is the land.

And then there are the more mundane matters here at home that are much more important for the people most closely affected. For instance, in Obama's old turf of Chicago, his old employer, the University of Chicago, is quietly gobbling up prime tracts around its current boundaries in efforts to acquire more space to grow. Or that is the answer that the university is supplying to the savvy few who have seen past the land trust in whose name the parcels are being bought. It is interesting to note that if Chicago were to earn the rights to host the 2016 Olympics, the U. of C. would be sitting on some expensive land that may be the site of the new Olympic stadium. The school has answered such claims with its long-standing goals of helping to revitalize the surrounding community by spurring development. Either way, the news itself has helped to keep people otherwise occupied. The same is true in San Diego County, California, where over 600 people were slated to speak on a proposed tollway through state park land. The California Coastal Commission has already denied the application. Now it is the U.S. Department of Commerce to weigh in on the proposal. Again it has brought out a huge throng in opposition. And in Dana Point, California, where the 30-year battle over Dana Point Headlands, a oceanfront home development, is finally ending with the project being built, cries from local residents and environmentalists continue. Called "catastrophic" from these foes, the new abodes have required significant grading work on the once pristine shoreline swath. However, city officials see it as a win, as sixty-eight acres of parks and trails were added in the deal. Either way, the end is near to a long battle.

It is hard not to keep an eye on how the stock market is doing today, and an eye on the health of the business entities that impact your own life. But maybe having no end isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's good to know that despite the uncertainty of the future, there is certainty that we have to continue to tend to our neighborhoods, bring new things and opportunities to our areas and do our part to push on and out of these troubling times. My wife and I are doing our part by moving into a new apartment, with more room and a back yard. Things will get better. And we might as well get to it sooner than later.

Full post as published by Kelo and Beyond on October 17, 2008 (boomark / email).

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