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    Wednesday, June 12, 2024

    'Pink House' author says it's time for a new ending to eminent domain story

    Author Jeff Benedict recalls that when he originally pitched the idea for a book called “Little Pink House,” his publisher rejected it. So he pushed forward, working for over a year without a contract.

    This was risky business.

    “But the first time I drove into the city’s Fort Trumbull neighborhood and witnessed the destruction, I became personally invested in Kelo v New London,” he recalled. “At that time, Susette Kelo’s pink house and a handful of other homes were still standing amidst debris and piles of rubble. I wrote in my journal: ‘It felt more like a war zone than a neighborhood.’”

    Benedict recalls that in meeting Susette, and looking into her eyes, he didn’t just see pain, he internalized it.

    “I asked myself: ‘What if it had been my home or my neighborhood?’ Privately, I’ve always felt that if city officials had asked that same question they wouldn’t have resorted to eminent domain,” said Benedict.

    While proud of the book that resulted — and of later producing a movie based on it — Benedict said one big regret remained.

    “I wish I could have written a different ending, one where the city collaborated with the residents,” he said. “A little kindness could have led to a lot of redevelopment.”

    In the following guest commentary, Benedict proposes a new ending.

    It was 20 years ago this month that the City Council authorized the New London Development Corporation to prepare a plan to acquire and redevelop 90 acres on the Fort Trumbull peninsula where the Thames River joins Long Island Sound. For its part, Connecticut invested $75 million in the plan, which was intended to complement the $300 million global research facility that Pfizer opened next door to the redevelopment area in 2001.

    But after acquiring nearly all of the targeted 90 acres, the city and the NLDC took an all-or-nothing approach to the few remaining lots owned by Susette Kelo, where sat her little pink house, and six neighbors. The prospect of jobs and increased tax revenues, the city argued, were “public benefits” worthy of using eminent domain.

    In June 2005, by a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.

    Here’s the rub. Thirteen years after the Kelo decision, after all the condemning and evicting and bulldozing, nothing has been built on the land that was taken. Basically, an entire neighborhood was erased in vain. Meantime, all those vacant lots have become New London’s scarlet letter.

    Thirteen years of inertia is long enough. For the sake of all parties – the city, the state, and the residents who were displaced – it’s time to turn the page and write an epilogue with a far more redeeming outcome.

    Over the past five weeks I’ve been in New London a lot, meeting one-on-one with more than two dozen officials from the city and its development agency, merchants, lawyers, real estate agents, and longtime residents. I’ve also made repeated trips to Hartford to talk with state officials, including influential leaders from both political parties.

    Whether our next governor is a Republican or a Democrat, I’m optimistic that the state will become more inviting to industry and growth. A good starting point might be to allow the marketplace to decide what makes sense for the barren land that remains rather than trying to continue driving this redevelopment effort from city hall.

    Connecticut can’t afford to continue writing off its $75 million investment in New London. By encouraging a private developer to invest in New London and finally create something on the land that would be both economically feasible and supportable within the local economy for the long term, the state could recoup that large check through commerce and taxes.

    Thanks to the state’s previous involvement, a lot of the infrastructure is already in place. There are challenges. The need for some environmental remediation remains. Egress issues in a flood emergency, which now limit the scope of residential development, must be addressed.

    Otherwise, the ground is basically shovel ready. Plus, renowned urban designer Alan Plattus of the Yale Urban Design Workshop has already proposed smart ideas for revitalizing the fishing pier, constructing a band shell at Fort Trumbull State Park for outdoor concerts, and erecting a pedestrian bridge – patterned after architecturally unique bridges in London, England – that connects Fort Trumbull to the downtown area.

    But before the city can expect to attract developers and investors with the wherewithal to transform the peninsula, the city must first shed its scarlet letter. The best place to start is by carving out seven contiguous residential building lots – perhaps right along East Street where the pink house once stood – and offering to convey them to Susette Kelo and her six evicted neighbors. The current mayor and City Council are not responsible for the mistakes of the past. But they have the chance to be game changers by formally apologizing and reconciling with the city's displaced residents.

    Under Connecticut law, when a development plan is abandoned there is a provision that allows for land seized by eminent domain to be conveyed back to a private party at fair market value. And there’s precedent for this. As recently as two months ago, Connecticut sold land back to a family in Andover whose property was seized by eminent domain.

    In the case of Kelo and her six neighbors, officials should forgo the fair market value price tag and offer building lots for $1. The city should also agree to restore utilities to the properties; offer property tax abatements until new homes are constructed; and, if necessary, make modifications to zoning laws.

    What I’m proposing actually requires more of the former residents of the neighborhood than it does from the city. It’s often harder to forgive than to apologize. And while some of the former plaintiffs may not desire to return to a neighborhood that they associate with so much trauma, it only takes one to lead the way to peace.

    One reason I’m optimistic is that before I met with any city and state officials, I went to see former city attorney Tom Londregan. Although it wasn’t his idea to use eminent domain, he led the charge to defend it. Personally, I disagreed with Londregan’s approach, but I never questioned his motives and intentions. I don’t know anyone who has spent more time trying to protect the city and its future.

    When I met with him a few weeks ago, he said the city was “fractured,” both figuratively and literally. He praised Susette Kelo and struck a reconciliatory tone, indicating that he’d be in favor of bringing people together and forging a path forward on the peninsula.

    After talking to Tom I invited Susette to my home. At my kitchen table I told her that I’d been to see Tom. I talked to her about reconciliation and the need to redevelop her old neighborhood. The conversation was both hard and heartfelt. Despite all that she’s been through, she was open to the idea of calling New London home again.

    If the two people at polar opposite ends of the fight in Kelo v. New London can come together, anything is possible. Imagine the national headlines if Susette Kelo and her neighbors are welcomed back to the city that once turned them out. Now, that’s a Hollywood ending.

    Jeff Benedict's most recent book is the #1 New York Times bestselling biography of Tiger Woods. He is currently writing a biography of LeBron James. He lives in Lyme.

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