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Real Estate & Property Law

: Kelo and Beyond

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

By Greg Alvarez, Esq.


Despite the nagging news, talk has turned to how to get out of this economic mess rather than harping on the doomsday state of things. In my humble opinion, it's time we all shake off the doldrums and get back to reviewing a bit of good solid land use activity out there. As we move into the post-Google world, in which everyone has access to every square inch of the face of the Earth from their computer screens, there is no mystery anymore, there is no "virgin land" to explore, no Lost City of Z. That doesn't mean though, that something can't be made from the land use of generations past. Reduce, reuse, recycle, as the motto goes, and that is the business of land development these days. How do we make new the old, and turn it into something great for generations to come?


One recent passing highlights this can-do spirit that motivated our forefathers, as embodied in such types as Melvin Simon, the mall magnate who passed not long ago at 82. From the Bronx to the biggest mall builder in the country (and beyond), Simon is the example of how to create new spaces for people -- at least if it meant auto-driven retail centers. Despite the fact that malls have gone through transition, and the model is on the significant wane, he created the new, and people flocked to it. To his credit, he was at the forefront of bringing movie theaters to malls, to keep them lively into the evening hours. Perhaps just short of his work in producing "Porky's," Simon's main achievement was providing inspiration, if not a vision, to respond to demand for new public spaces.

The vision tag, if not one for execution, could be attached as well to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose grand plan for Paris is his attempt to place his stamp on the City of Lights. In his scheme are far-reaching proposals to unite the suburban ring with the central city through a massive infrastructure infusion to the region. Currently, a ring highway separates the two politically distinct subsets of the metropolis. The dearth of affordable housing in the area is also a problem, and Sarkozy wants to work towards solving this void as well, which may include the dreaded skyscrapers which the city has worked hard to eschew. Of course, the economic conditions are to blame for the scaled-back version Sarkozy now proposes. But the view toward the future must be commended as a vision toward reusing and reshaping Paris' footprint.

How about Supermayor Michael Bloomberg, who is working to transform neighborhoods fraught with low income and high rates of obesity and diabetes into healthier places, on several different levels, by pushing through a new plan to encourage the building of supermarkets in these impoverished areas. Specifically, zoning and tax incentives will be built into the City zoning code and tax laws, respectively, in order to bring more stores to these neighborhoods.

Preserve the Old

Preservation is another example of reusing the old by simply keeping it in order for future users. Not everything needs to be "updated" and "modernized", but can be continued with a few upgrades here and there. In Los Angeles, where it seems even the thought of preservation a travesty, there was a recent war of words started by the Los Angeles Times, which appeared to misunderstand that the City actually already has certain safeguards in place for historic structures -- since 1962. As one responder notes, of the 880,000 parcels in Los Angeles, only 975 are "historic." Nonetheless, in a place where sprawl is king, any little reuse is a good thing.

In a quirky turn regarding preservation and recycling, the Lincoln Branch Library in Peoria, Illinois, is stuck in the difficult position of having to remove a 19th century pioneer burial ground in order to continue to use through expansion its existing 1910 building originally financed by Andrew Carnegie. The public relations person for the library noted, "'It really is an architecturally important building. . . . A used building is a preserved building."

Clever Reimaginations

How about industrial site to parkland? In Chicago, a former U.S. Steel manufacturing works is being redeveloped into a park nestled up against Lake Michigan. In the meantime, a local mead maker has struck a deal to allow 300,000 honey bees the swarm the area, in an effort to create his alcoholic concoction. As he claims, "The honey made here from wildflowers is just as good if not better than any I have found anywhere." It it works, and the land can be reused, why not?

Back in Kings Park, NY, my childhood hometown, the battle continues over the Kings Park Psychiatric Center property, which is located on 518 acres on the north shore of Long Island. Currently, the plan is likewise to convert it into a park. However, the Long Island Regional Planning Council has suggested that several of the existing buildings be reused for affordable housing. Not surprisingly, the Kings Park community has exercised its NIMBY muscles, and expressed its displeasure with such a suggestion. The State of New York remains noncommittal on the proposal. Down the road at the Pilgrim State facility, where developer Gerald Wolkoff is seeking to build a $4-billion mixed-use project, the Town of Islip is pushing ahead with public comment, in an effort to redevelop another vacant jewel on an already crowded Long Island.

The industrial site turned park that has received the most attention in these parts as of late is the new High Line park in the meatpacking district of Manhattan. It is ironic that when the Standard Hotel opened back in April, the talk was of the architectural adeptness of the new structure which towers over the new park. Of course, industrious types turned the exposed windows of the hotel into exhibition spots for sordid trysts for all to see, including the families walking the new park grounds. Ah, isn't adaptive reuse a wonderful thing?


Of course, recycling old spaces to make them new is not always for the better, or without reverie for the old. For instance, with the proliferation of big box stores in the Bronx, New York, one commentator harkens back to the late 1970's, when times were simpler, when people could just "hang out." In some ways, I can see his point.

And some people see attempts at reshaping places, even when it means a greener world, as not worth the view. For instance, recent efforts to construct windmills on residential properties, in an attempt to generate energy self-sufficient homes, have been rejected by local land use boards on height, aesthetic and safety grounds. Another novel approach from around the country has been using tight urban backyards as barnyards for raising chickens and other critters for very local consumption. Not everyone is excited, particularly the neighbors. In New Haven, one governmental official noted, "'Raising your own food is cool, but not when you have yards that are 20 feet by 30 feet.'" In Santa Monica, California, a similar movement is afoot whereby wannabe community gardeners are being connected with busy homeowners to create backyard community gardens to further green the southern California burg. The impetus came from a five-year waiting period for community garden space on public tracts.

On the other side of things, the view is everything. In Tokyo, a group of civic-minded residents have formed the Society to Protect Nippori's Fujimizaka, an organization designed to preserve the view corridor of Mount Fuji from the last of 16 slopes in central Tokyo from where one can view the majestic volcano. Of course, their first attempts failed to block a 14-story apartment building which is now in the way. Ever the optimists: "Then we realized there is still two-thirds of the view left. So we decided, let's protect that."

Return from the Abyss

Recycling doesn't always have to mean the land on which projects are built. Jean Chretien, the former Canadian prime minister, has reinvented himself as, among other things, a facilitator of economic development, including a $4.5 billion casino planned along the South China Sea, south of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Other novel permutations of the concept of recycling includes a movement, led by such advocacy groups as one called Take Back the Land, whereby squatters are filling the void left by foreclosed homeowners to keep these otherwise vacant homes vibrant and kept. They are moving in through the front door, and receive support from neighbors, who would rather have someone there than not. The organizations do perform background checks, and require new residents to work to upkeep the house and pay the utility bills.

In Victorville, California, another approach has been employed. Where a builder defaulted on the construction of a new housing development, the bank which took over the property decided to tear down the four houses already constructed, as it was the cheaper alternative to completing the development. At least the demolition firm will be recycling the remaining usable materials. Another way to waste not, want not, is taking place in towns looking to redefine themselves from manufacturing hubs to biotech leaders. For instance, in Kannapolis, North Carolina, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Huntsville, Alabama, they are constructing new facilities to attract biotech firms. This is a risky proposition, say some, as the industry hasn't exactly been known for consistent profits. But desperate times have bred such measures as the Biopolis of Kannapolis in an attempt to save dying towns.

A Little Bit O' Hockey, and a Little Bit O' Basketball

Still other ways to reuse can be found in the field of architecture, where the controversial Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn fired renowned architect Frank Gehry, in place of a more cost-conscious vision. The second architect was then replaced with Shop Architects, which has attempted to bring back the original Gehry elements, scaled down from the original version. Nonetheless, the old becomes new again.

Farther out on Long Island, a similar project is being proposed by Charles Wang, the owner of the NHL's New York Islanders, which is facing hurdles from local officials. Dubbed the Lighthouse project, the plan is to redevelop the decrepit Nassau Coliseum, and create a hub of mixed use activity around the sea of asphalt now occupying the site.

On the other end of the recycling spectrum, in Portland, Oregon, the fondness for Memorial Coliseum has stimulated the citizenry to save the structure where the Portland Trail Blazers won an NBA Championship in 1977. The indoor space has been saved from demolition and replacement with an outdoor baseball stadium by earning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

Is It Worth Saving?

Still farther out on Long Island, plans are afoot to save what remains of Wardenclyffe, Nikola Tesla's grand lair for wireless communication technology. A group of scientists would like to save the site, which includes the foundation for a 187-foot tower which once sent out wireless messages, and the accompanying laboratory designed by famed architect Stanford White. Right now the land is up for sale, and the owner, the Agfa Corporation, is forced to sell to the highest bidder.

And then there's the other side of the ledger, where one Kansas community claims there is "wasted land." Treece, Kansas, population 140, was a thriving mining town until the 1970's. Its sister town, Picher, Oklahoma, operated in similar fashion. However, once the two places were declared Superfund sites, the EPA's course of action was to buy out the residents and relocate them rather than clean up the community. The buyouts, unfortunately, stopped at the state line, with the residents of Picher receiving the largesse. Treece remains, with the hope from residents that they will be bought out, rather than wait for the EPA to clean up their town. The EPA does intend to remediate the Kansas side. In most cases recycling is the answer. In Treece, most people just want out.

And Finally . . .

And as a parting note, the award for reuse in the most unique way in the land use realm must go to Tod Curtis, the owner of a pizzeria in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, who is finding an interesting new use for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Mr. Curtis is claiming that the village's elected officials have been conducting an "'ongoing enterprise and scheme'" against him to force him out of his building, which he has owned for 41 years, to acquire it for a new commercial and residential complex. "'You have to take a stand somewhere,'" he said. Why not with the aid of making the old new?

Full post as published by Kelo and Beyond on October 16, 2009 (boomark / email).

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