Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Just what is blight, anyway?

If you live in or around Philly, as I do, you are probably familiar with the chain of communities collectively known as the Main Line. These are all older, affluent suburbs, with charming, eclectic business districts that usually center on the train stations of the Pennsylvania Railroad route that gave the area its name.

Some of these, such as Ardmore, are struggling to remain vibrant in the face of competition from regional malls and trendy districts such as Wayne and Manayunk. Some of their shops are vacant, and some of their buildings could use a little sprucing up.

But I doubt that anyone, upon seeing them, would judge them blighted.

And yet that is exactly what officials in Ardmore--and in the northern suburb of Jenkintown--are calling them. All so they can take advantage of a decades-old state law promoting urban redevelopment.

The law, passed in 1943, gives municipalities expanded powers of condemnation in order to remove blight and redevelop rundown neighborhoods. Ardmore officials would like to construct a new retail complex and train station along historic Lancaster Avenue in order to keep people strolling the street and better connect the district to the equally historic Suburban Square shopping center across the tracks. In Jenkintown, borough officials want the designation so they can purchase fading properties and offer them to developers willing to either rehabilitate them or build new structures.

All of this may be desirable, even beneficial for neighboring merchants. But it seems a bit too heavy-handed a use of government power. And to get that power, the governments in question have to, in effect, disparage their own communities by declaring them in worse shape than they really are.

That our big cities engaged in the same sort of behavior in the urban renewal era of the 1950s and 1960s does not make it any more right or justified today.

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