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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Laying a Foundation

October 20, 2017

DETROIT – Mayor Mike Duggan, the man who brought lighting back to every street in Detroit and drastically improved police response times and garbage collection, seems headed for a landslide reelection victory less than three weeks from now.

You never know for sure, of course, and journalism is filled with columnists (including me) who thought Donald Trump couldn’t be elected. Even so, it is difficult to imagine State Senator Coleman Young II pulling off an upset on Nov. 7.

The challenger was trounced in the August primary, losing to Duggan, 43,535 to 17,180, or 68 percent to 27 percent. Since then, Young has waged a largely invisible campaign, possibly because he has attracted few donations or endorsements.

Yet what happens after the election is over?

John Mogk, one of Detroit’s foremost experts on urban problems, has been strongly supportive of what the mayor has accomplished since his stunning election victory four years before.

But he adds that it’s not nearly enough.

Not if Detroit is to begin to become anything like the city it once was, when its glamour and jobs lured thousands to this state.

“During his second term, Mike Duggan needs to move from fixing the short-term problems to laying a long-term foundation for the city,” he told me over lunch one recent afternoon.

Mogk’s credentials are unequalled. He has been a law professor at Wayne State University since 1968, when he decided to come back to his native Detroit after the devastating riot the year before. Prior to that, he’d worked as legal counsel to U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy’s program to revitalize the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

Now 78, he’s been intimately involved with the city ever since, serving on everything from the Detroit Board of Education to chairing the Michigan Council on Labor and Economic Growth.

Old-timers remember his inspiring “Walking John” campaign for mayor in 1973, when he didn’t win, but inspired thousands by walking the streets of as many neighborhoods as possible.

Now, he says Duggan’s task for his second term should include an updated realistic master plan, major efforts to strengthen community organizations, and an effort to change the Michigan constitution regarding one issue that has long stood in the way of attracting new jobs to Detroit:

Eminent domain.

Back in 1981, the city used eminent domain to seize an entire neighborhood called “Poletown” on the Hamtramck border, buying hundreds of homes and businesses, bulldozing them, and turning the land over to General Motors for an auto plant.

The move was bitterly controversial, though said by the state courts to be legal at the time. But in 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned that, ruling in a case called County of Wayne vs Hathcock that was an improper “radical departure from fundamental constitutional principles,” and that governments cannot use eminent domain to give land to private developers.

Many hailed that decision. “The Michigan Supreme Court has restored the right of all Michiganders to keep their homes and businesses, even if another politically connected private business wants them,” said Chip Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.

But Mogk calls it a disaster for the city. “Detroit needs to be able to use eminent domain for these purposes,” he said, for one big reason: The city has no available large parcels of land.

“We’ve got a lot of vacant land,” (24 square miles) Duggan told me in August, “but it is in a checkerboard of one and two lot parcels,” with now no easy way to assemble it.

Mogk thinks after the election, the mayor should use his political capital to push for a constitutional amendment that would allow the city to use eminent domain. He knows there’s a need to guard against abuses – and would exempt from the requirement any home whose owner has lived there at least a year.

As proof that eminent domain can work, he noted that the city used it to acquire land for two auto plants – Poletown, formally known as the GM Hamtramck Assembly Plant, and the Chrysler Jefferson Assembly Plant. “They are the only (automobile assembly plants) left in Detroit, and remain state-of-the-art today,” he said.

Beyond that, however, he thinks a reelected Mayor Duggan needs to do some other things to lay the foundation for the city’s future – including adopting a modern and realistic master plan.

Duggan’s slogan has always been “every neighborhood has a future.” But while Mogk acknowledges that’s politically powerful, he says “it’s bad for long-range city development.

Simply put, Detroit is now a city of perhaps 672,000 people in a space where there were once two million. What’s needed, he said, was to find incentives to consolidate population and design productive uses” for areas that are nearly or fully vacated.

Again, this is something that would be a lot easier to do if the city had the right to make judicious use of eminent domain.

There are other things Mogk would recommend, including stronger ties between the city and community organizations, and redoubling efforts to support and improve public education in Detroit. That doesn’t mean, he cautioned, that he doesn’t have enormous respect for what Mike Duggan has done so far.

He thinks, however, that once reelected, the mayor will have both a duty and a chance that may never come again to set Detroit on a course not just for bare survival, but for a growing future.

That might be the best indication of how important for this state this election – and the decisions flowing from it — may be.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

October 19, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Q. Public // Oct 20, 2017 at 1:20 am

    If the proposal is to take private property from one owner to give to another, I will vote for it only if just compensation is set at ten times the market value or $100,000 (indexed for inflation, of course), whichever is greater, plus the owner whose land is being taken is given an equity stake in the venture for which the land is being assembled. Otherwise, we’ll revisit the era of the robber barons.

    And, to prevent another New London, CT situation, if the new economic development is not commenced within some reasonable time–seven years ought to be enough–the land reverts to the prior owner or his heirs. Plus, they get to keep the moiney.

    What IS this fascination with defining artificial boundaries around a plot of land, giving the plot a name, and then deciding it should have more rights than the humans who live on it?

  • 2 stuart carter // Oct 20, 2017 at 8:40 am

    Incredibly horrible idea without scruplously intense oversites. Poletown displaced thousands of people so that private enterprise could have a land grap. This scenario has been repeated all over the country many times over the years. It has a long history of abuse. Even George W. Bush as a minority shareholder with a pro baseball team (while he was governor of Texas?) misused eminent domain to build a stadium. His group overbought land and then resold the excess at a profit.
    With Michigan’s completely corrupt political system (and I mean corrupt as being controlled by dark money from lobbiests where there is no accountability on both sides), the misuse of power with a redefined formula for eminent domain would be a disaster. The system would steam roll over the people with unprecidented might. Rethink this, Mr. Lessenberry. Big money and politics has already pushed our political system too far.

  • 3 Anagnorisis // Oct 20, 2017 at 8:48 am

    Many points of contention there are inherent to land. 1701 heralded the first settlement of De-Troit, “The Straits”, by the French explorers and fur traders who essentially took it from indigenous people. Spring Hill, Tennessee welcomed GM’s Saturn production in the 1980s only to watch them pull out decades later leaving neighborhoods and workers abandoned. Eminent Domain/Manifest Destiny is therefore pragmatically and empirically a bad idea in retrospect since at its base it’s imperialism, or depredation in which to the winners go the spoils, an ethical violation. Despite tradition it’s an unnatural process rarely justified.

  • 4 Tony Pieroni // Oct 20, 2017 at 10:39 am

    Mogk has been an eminent domain proponent for years. I have campaigned against eminent domain abuse for years and am a long time financial of the Institute For Justice, which will vigorously and successfully oppose any deviation from the current constitutional prohibition on eminent domain for other than traditional public purposes. (By the way, both the Chrysler and GM plant developments resulting from eminent domain abuse were plagued by corruption that escalated the costs of those projects tremendously.)

    Where you have eminent domain for other than traditional public purposes (highways, parks, police stations etc) there is eminent domain abuse.


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