Ed Glaeser on "right-sizing" Detroit:
Shrinking Detroit Back to Greatness, by Edward L. Glaeser, Economix: Can Detroit shrink to greatness? After decades of betting that white elephant projects, like the city’s monorail, would reverse decline, Detroit’s remarkable mayor, Dave Bing, a former N.B.A. All-Star and successful steel entrepreneur, has focused on right-sizing his city and its government. ...
But what does it mean to right-size a city? As cities lose people and tax revenues decline, it often makes economic sense to close a public structure, like a school. Kansas City has put itself in the forefront of this trend by choosing to close 28 of its 61 schools to meet the reality of declining enrollments and limited funds, which is a little odd since Kansas City’s population has been quite stable for two decades.
Closing schools, or any public facility, is never easy, but it is hard to argue that a cash-strapped municipality isn’t within its rights if it chooses to cut costs by reducing the number of public facilities. ...
A second strategy, proposed by Mayor Bing, goes beyond closing a few schools, and eliminates the provision of public services to some parts of a city.
Detroit has a large number of communities that are dominated by empty lots and vacant homes. Mayor Bing has spoken of providing incentives for the people still living in such areas to relocate...
For a big-city mayor to warn that some areas will be no-service zones is radical, but our country is filled with less populated areas that lack public trash removal, bus service and water provision. ... Of course, one might hope ... he would also cut their property tax bill.
The third, and most extreme, approach is to bulldoze buildings and turn them over to some alternative use, like parks or agriculture. Razing empty, dilapidated, hazardous structures is fairly uncontroversial, but more questions must be raised if the mayor is going to forcibly move significant amounts of people in order to physically reshape large land areas.
If the residents of largely empty areas aren’t willing to sell and move, then we are back in the same quandary that always faces large public changes in urban land use... To what extent should a city put perceived citywide interests ahead of the wishes of individual property-owners?
If removing a largely vacant neighborhood really generates significant gains, then some sizable fraction of those gains can be given to the citizens who will have to give up their homes. If generous payments, rather than eminent domain, are used to move the remaining residents, then right-sizing can be win-win.
But if Mayor Bing tries to do too much, too quickly, without giving enough to the residents who have to move, then right-sizing will justly be seen as yet another example of the public insensitivity and folly that has unfortunately marred too many past efforts at dealing with urban distress.