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Urban Renewal: Have We Achieved Utopia?

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Editor’s Note: I was at a barbecue last night and a guest spontaneously brought this subject up. “They took everybody and everything out of the downtown,” she said. “Nobody even uses the parking garages, and businesses have relocated along Forest Avenue and Glen Street.” This article originally appeared on the Glen Cove Patch website on December 10, 2013. It can be read here.

My grandfather ran La Trattoria del Pappagallo for many years on School Street where La Bussola operates now. Some of my family’s most nostalgic memories go back to the days when my late grandfather, Ralph walked around in carts, cooking up fine pastas and entrees in carts right in front of patrons.

Unfortunately, I never got to see the restaurant that reviewers said “ranked with the best of Manhattan” for myself. Whenever it came up, I asked how such a successful restaurant could close so suddenly. “Urban renewal, the regulars stopped coming.” But “urban renewal” always sounded like a good thing–government help! How could that be bad?

A lotta urban destruction

A bird’s eye view of downtown Urban Renewal. Credit: Gary Russell

“Urban Renewal”, lead by the so-called government agency, was a top-down plan to turn School Street into a pedestrian mall. The renewers decided to substitute street parking for three-story parking garages and other structures. The New York Times reported in 1972 that the city would “acquire” nearly 46 acres of property and dislocate 102 families and 100 businesses. But it was done in the name of “modernization”–what could possibly go wrong?

Pappagallo’s story is hardly unique. It went peacefully, but others chose to go up against the planners. Alan Gengarelly, who operated Brigati Fine-Foods on School Street, chose to sue the Glen Cove Urban Renewal Agency in 1979 because he felt his property was being taken without just compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment. He said the urban renewal plan “deprived them and their customers suitable access to their grocery store.”

Others were even more vocal about Urban Renewal’s failures. The Times interviewed the new Village Square’s first tenant, Giuseppe Grella that same year. Mr. Grella had opened International Fashions by Giuseppe as an early adopter of Renewal’s promises. The finished product wasn’t what the planners and politicians had promised. “Ten years ago this was a boom town, you couldn’t find a place to park your car,” Mr. Grella told The New York Times. “Now it’s like a ghost town and no one can meet their rents.”

Then there was Stanley Eisenstadt.

The last one standing... not for long.

Eisenstadt’s stands as “the last one in the way of further urban destruction.”

His landmark hardware store was the unlucky target of planners who wanted him to vacate the land next to what would be the second Brewster Street garage. The planners called Eisenstadt an obstructionist, that the new plans would be completed if only for his “stubborn refusal.” Mr. Eisenstadt swore to persist as “the only one standing in the way of further urban destruction.”

In fact, the top-down planning platform was likely a minority view. Alan Parente, running on the 1979 Republican and Conservative lines for Mayor charged, “the garages are only the beginning,” that eventually it would “cause the downtown business area to evaporate.” Michael Hansen, a Libertarian candidate called to “stop the useless rhetoric about who is to blame for the garage and try to prevent the boondoggle from getting any bigger.” Parente and Hansen were right.

But as Ronald Reagan said, “the more the plans fail, the more the planners plan.”

Charlie Bozzello, an industrial engineer by training and 2013 city council candidate noted that Urban Renewal’s error was that it assumed (or perhaps tried to correct, reflecting the ideology at the time) the opposite of all observed human consumer behavior: “people like to shop at stores they can see.” The massive size and suffocating nature of Renewal structures have eliminated this fundamental marketing concept for the downtown. Bozzello was able to calculate the opportunity cost of the Brewster Street garages in tax revenues, and it came out to hundreds of thousands of dollars–per year.

A taxi stand being knocked down. Credit: Gary Russell

A taxi stand being knocked down. Credit: Gary Russell

Aside from opportunities lost such as boutiques and clothing stores, the artificial shortage of business units in the heart of Glen Cove’s downtown due to Renewal has allowed landlords to raise rents on businesses in the absence of competition. Just five percent of land area and parcels are available for commercial use as a result of Glen Cove’s zoning regulations. Part of rent increases result from taxes and the cost of doing business, though increased supplies would encourage competition and put downward pressure on rents.

Politicians shouldn’t accept the status quo. “But who would go there?” is a common excuse. The answer is what people want. In a recent survey, 80 percent of Glen Cove residents and visitors said attracting new retail business was very important. 70 percent said the reason for not shopping in Glen Cove was a lack of stores and shops. While visiting the downtown, 83 percent feel secure, 88 percent feel secure at downtown events. The survey reveals that visitors feel the least secure in the parking garages–22 percent feel somewhat insecure, and 14 percent feel very insecure.

The new parking garage to the left. Credit: Gary Russell

The new parking garage to the left. Credit: Gary Russell

No successful downtown is a result of government owning so much of what should be the most valuable and productive land. Even more importantly, it is stores, offices and restaurants that require parking, not parking garages that create the need for stores and restaurants. And when the government promises “free parking” especially in the form of massive garages, residents always pay with higher taxes, higher prices, or worse what Parente called “the evaporation of the downtown business area.”

Residents who were around back then cite old buildings and recurring fires as justification for Urban Renewal, though they disagree with how it was implemented. However, this could have been corrected if the City allowed technological innovation and market forces to work.

Parking Garage EntranceTo change course, elected officials must seek to sell off as much property it took downtown as possible and return much of the land to the free market.  This isn’t limited to the garages. Knocking down garages that are crumbling and have surpassed their useful life isn’t as crazy as paying for constant renovations until eternity. They’re coming down, either way. It would close the book on a legacy of urban destruction and open the door to a revival of a place where we can enjoy the activities and find the goods we want to, in our downtown.

 

 

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About the author

Founder, Executive Editor

Before founding the Beacon, Mike worked at AOL Patch, Anton News, and most recently at Reason Magazine.

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