East Valley city officials were down at the Legislature last week warning of a blight epidemic if they're no longer allowed to seize private property and give it to developers.
For example, Tempe officials point to the cluster of dumps, strip clubs and porn shops southwest of Loops 101 and 202. They're right about the area being a mess. Clearly visible from the Loop 202, it stands in stark and ugly contrast to the sparkling Town Lake nearby.
But is the steel heel of government trampling on property rights the only way to effect positive change? Hardly. In fact, that steel heel might be getting in the way of improvements.
The area in question is positioned well for major reinvestment. Creation of Town Lake and the development going in around it make this messy patch prime real estate. But developers who can spot such opportunities also know that cities' redevelopment “incentives” can make a profitable project even more so. So why not hold out for a tax-paid smokin' deal?
The typical redevelopment pattern is to buy up or condemn land, clear it and sell it to a developer at a subsidized price on condition politicians and bureaucrats dictate what gets built. The process short-circuits the marketplace, which may demand or support something very different from the politically generated vision.
With city officials showing such disdain for the marketplace and property rights, the Legislature should force the issue by tightening restrictions on eminent domain.
Cities can and should continue to combat blight through legitimate means: vigorous enforcement of criminal statutes as well as municpal codes that target health and safety problems. Public investments such as Town Lake and the Mesa Arts Center also are catalysts for private reinvestment. Private contractual regulations such as neighborhood and business associations also are effective and preferable to the heavy hand of government.