Cities: August 2003 Archives

Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, writes about the joys of wireless blogging from a downtown Knoxville pub:

I LOVE WI-FI: I'm wireless-blogging from the Downtown Grill and Brewery, which is yet another in the list of wifi equipped local businesses.

I note that Shannon Okey is playing up the idea of free wireless hotzones as tools for downtown redevelopment. I think that there's a lot of room for that sort of thing. Knoxville's Market Square, downtown, has wireless access now. I'd like to see that sort of thing spread.

Of course it may be -- as Paul Boutin suggests -- that businesses will take care of this everywhere. (That's actually how it is in Knoxville -- the City hasn't done squat). And in fact, as Boutin also points out, the biggest hassle and expense in setting up a for-pay wifi hotspot is the billing setup. I think that means that wireless internet access may really be "too cheap to meter." Though perhaps that will change as wifi becomes more popular. In the meantime, be sure the hotspots have backup power, so that people can post photos to their blogs during blackouts!

Here's a related story:

Somerville [Massachusetts] is considering setting up an urban hot zone in Davis Square to provide free wi-fi to customers of participating businesses and three parks. The cost to merchants is expected to be approximately $30 per month with no charge to the city for access in the parks.

This is a great idea conceived by Wi-Fi activist Michael Oh of Tech Superpowers (who first set up the hot zone prototype along Newbury Street) and Patrick J. McCormick, the chief information officer for the City of Somerville.

Why not in the Blue Dome and Brady and Greenwood districts -- and why not now? This could be a cheap way to get people excited about downtown and send a message that Tulsa is a city committed to technology. And it could be done by businesses alone or in partnership with government.

Are there any wi-fi hot zones or wi-fi-equipped coffee shops, bookstores, or restaurants around town? E-mail me and I'll give said businesses a free plug.

(Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity, a system for wireless computer networking.)

Eminent domain abuse in Alabama


Neal Boortz tells a horror story from Alabaster, Alabama. A mall developer wants to build next to the Interstate, but some property owners don't want to sell. As Boortz puts it,

That, my friends, should be the end of the story. If one private individual wants to own a certain piece of property, but the legal owner of that piece of property doesn’t want to sell it, the private property rights of the owner of the real estate should be recognized, and the person trying to buy the property should back off.

Next week the Alabaster city council will begin condemnation proceedings to seize the land by eminent domain. The council will then sell the seized land to the mall developer.

How can they do this? The 5th Amendment only allows government to take private property for public use. How can this town's leadership justify taking private property for the benefit of another private party?

So, Alabaster’s “public use” excuse is that the current owners of the land simply don’t pay enough taxes. The land needs to be seized and turned over to someone who will generate some more tax payments. Those additional taxes can then be spent on the public. There’s your “public use.”

You do realize, don’t you, that this very same excuse can be used by any government entity anywhere in the United States that wants to increase its tax revenues? Let’s say that you’re sitting fat and happy in a home that has been in your family for generations. You’re sitting on about five acres in a prime location near a major city. A local developer wants your property to build a subdivision of cluster-mansions. You don’t want to sell. The developer goes to the county commission and tells them that if he had that property he could build at least 15 homes there worth about $600,000 each. The developer correctly points out to the politician that the county could collect thousands of dollars in additional property taxes if he could just get his hands on that land and build those homes. A few weeks passes and one day you get a letter from the county attorney telling you that your property is going to be seized by the county. Their only excuse is that they can get more tax dollars if your five acres had 15 homes than they can with your 60 year-old farmhouse. The “public use?” More tax revenues.

If governments can abuse the concept of eminent domain in this manner then your private property rights are virtually non-existent. You own your home only so long as the local politicians tolerate that ownership. Let some developer come along with a better idea, and you can kiss your dirt goodbye.

Can't happen in Tulsa? It happens all the time. The Tulsa Development Authority used eminent domain to seize much of the land where the Reynolds Center now sits, and some of the land in the new section of University of Tulsa's campus west of Delaware Avenue. The University of Tulsa is a private, sectarian institution. TU let the city know what land it wanted, and the city took care of removing recalcitrant owners.

So far as I am aware, the City of Tulsa hasn't used condemnation powers at the direct request of a business, but some city leaders have openly discussed the possibility. Developers want to build retail in Midtown, now that Midtown is fashionable again. But most of Midtown's commercial areas are too small to accommodate suburban big box stores. The developer's preferred solution is not to redesign the store to fit the site, but to take adjacent houses and assemble enough property for a big development. If some of the owners won't sell, city officials would force them to sell.

There is an organization monitoring eminent domain abuse -- the Castle Coalition, a branch of the Institute for Justice.

Here is the Castle Coalition's list of the top 10 eminent domain abuses, summarized by Boortz:

* Removing an entire neighborhood and the condemnation of homes for a privately owned and operated office park and other, unspecified uses to complement a nearby Pfizer facility in New London, Connecticut.

* Approving the condemnation of more than 1,700 buildings and the dislocation of more than 5,000 residents for private commercial and industrial development in Riviera Beach, Florida.

* A government agency collecting a $56,500 bounty for condemning land in East St. Louis, Illinois, to give to a neighboring racetrack for parking.

* Replacing a less-expensive car dealership with a BMW dealership in Merriam, Kansas.

* Condemning a building in Boston just to help the owner break his leases so that the property could be used for a new luxury hotel.

* Seizing the homes of elderly homeowners in Mississippi and forcing them and their extended families to move in order to transfer the land to Nissan for a new, privately owned car manufacturing plant, despite the fact that the land is not even needed for the project.

* Taking the building of an elderly widow for casino parking in Las Vegas, claiming it was blighted but without ever even looking at the building .

* Improperly denying building permits to a church in New Cassel, New York, then condemning the property for private retail as soon as it looked like the church would begin construction.

* Condemning 83 homes for a new Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio, that was supposed to bring jobs but ended up employing less than half the projected number because it is fully automated.

* Forcing two families (along with their neighbors) to move for a private mall expansion in Hurst, Texas, while spouses were dying of cancer.

James Lileks is one of my favorite writers and webmeisters. His beautifully designed site features his daily musings (The Bleat), the "Institute of Official Cheer", an archive of the unintentional humor of advertising, postcards of motels, diners, and restaurants, matchbook covers, and postcard-based urban studies of Minneapolis, New York, and his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota. Lileks combines laugh-out-loud humor with keen insight and some writing that can move you to tears.

Monday's and Tuesday's Bleats were even more thought-provoking than usual.

Monday's Bleat describes taking the old highway (US 10) from Minneapolis to Fargo, which leads to a meditation on small towns that vanish and those that stay.

Some of the towns are just rusty smears - a busted down garage, a grain elevator, a Cenex gas station, a tavern whose sign has the Hamm’s Beer logo from 1967. You wonder who lives here; you wonder if this is just a large disorganized nursing home, with old widows counting out the few last pennies of summer #78. In ten years the town will lose its postal designation. In twenty it’ll be gone. When people can get from A to C in 27 minutes, there’s no reason for B to exist. And so it dies.

But A and C thrive nicely, if they’re near a lake. To the modern small town in Minnesota, a lake has the value a railroad line once had. They bring the tourists, and the tourists like to golf, too. They like to eat. They like to hunt. They buy bait in the summer and bullets in the fall and Miller Beer all year round. Add the needs of the local farmers - insurance, implements, hospitals, groceries - and you have a petri dish of urban life. If the town’s big enough to have a north side and a south side, you have rivalries and reptuations. You can't imagine how much you'd learn if you stopped and spent a year.

The prosperous cities have a water tower; they have a proper traffic light at the intersection of Front and Main. They have a sign that welcomes you with a variation of the same old sentiment: Warborg: A nice place to call home! Smagsburg: You’ll feel at home here! Stupley: You’ll Get Used to the Turkey Barn Smell! The sign is spattered with the emblems of the local booster boys, the Lions, Kiwanis, Eagles, Elks, Wombats, etc. There’s a sign reminding the world that the New York Mills girls softball team have been State “A” champs three years in a row. The downtown saw better days, but it’s seen worse ones as well. The old bank on the corner: antique store. The old movie theater: antique store. (The old antique store: espresso.) Names are carved in the cornice of every brick building, the names of the men who put up these whimsies in the middle of nothing for reasons you can only guess.

Tuesday's Bleat features a meditation on malls and downtowns, inspired by a visit home for his birthday:

But they’re spiffing up downtown - the trees that smothered Broadway are gone. The “mall” has been ripped up; there’s angle parking again. It looks as if someone cares, which is more you can say for many towns with dying downtowns. Dying? No: dead. At least for retail. Picturesque and historic as it is, it’ll never come back until you block off freeway access to the burbs, and force people downtown at gunpoint. Spending a lot of time and money trying to bring it back to life is like disinterring the first mayor and putting the paddles on his brittle bones. CLEAR! Bzzzz. Crackle. Damn.

I say this with no cheer, since I love downtowns, especially this one. ...

My wife and child were at West Acres Mall, so I drove out to meet them. And here I learned where everyone was on a gloomy Saturday. The place was jammed. The Mall was finally rehabbed a few years ago, and it’s one of the more incoherent overhauls I’ve ever seen, but the place still draws the traffic. And why not? All these bright stores close together, all these commingled scents of coffee and doughnuts, of candles and perfume; all these people - packs and claques of teens, rumpled weary families with small kids, idle middle-aged men cooling their heels in Mission easy chairs, stolid moms and tarted-up daughters shopping for shoes and face-paint. There’s more life here on a Saturday than you’d ever find downtown outside of the day before Christmas. No weather; no worries.

It’s the inescapable truth: people prefer malls to downtown. Malls lack the character, the history, the charm, the serendipity. But they are intensely social in ways downtowns never are, aside from the occasional parade or summertime farmer’s market. Fargo made its choice. It’s ugly, but it works for them.

And Fargo's downtown appears to be far more intact than Tulsa's is. I think downtown's best hope for life is as a BoBo (bohemian bourgeoisie) neighborhood -- an urban alternative to the suburbs, because not everyone aspires to live on a cul-de-sac. The slow process to build that kind of neighborhood is underway, a process that will only be stunted by closing streets, demolishing old buildings (which are the least expensive and therefore best opportunities for new ventures), and plopping big faceless public buildings and big-box stores all over the landscape. is a daily stop for me, and it should be for you, too.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Cities category from August 2003.

Cities: July 2003 is the previous archive.

Cities: September 2003 is the next archive.

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