Five disastrous urban renewal failures

While urban renewal was primarily a mid-20th century phenomenon that decimated the cores of America's cities, here's a few disastrous failures that have occurred over the last 30 years.

3. Poletown - Detroit, MI

Poletown was a working class, racially integrated neighborhood in Detroit that was settled during the 1870s by Polish and Kashubian immigrants. During the 1980s, Mayor Coleman Young proposed to demolish the neighborhood by eminent domain in order to construct a new auto assembly plant. As many as 6,000 new jobs were envisioned. Despite various protests, national news attention and lawsuits, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in favor of the assembly plant project, stating that economic development was a legitimate use of eminent domain.

As a result, in 1981, 465 acres, consisting of 4,200 residents, 1,400 houses, several churches and 140 businesses were razed. On February 4, 1985, the first vehicle rolled off GM’s $500 million Detroit/Hamtramck assembly line. 31 years later, GM’s Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant employs approximately 1,600 workers, far below the 6,000 originally estimated.

As far as Poletown goes, all that is left of the razed neighborhood is a small Jewish cemetery, Beth Olem, which is engulfed by the assembly plant’s operations. As time has passed, Poletown Neighborhood Council v. Detroit has become known as a landmark case for “public use” eminent domain matters. Also, if any vindication for preservation is needed, in 2004 the Michigan Supreme Court finally acknowledged its ruling, which led to Poletown’s destruction, was a huge mistake.

Courtesy of The Library of Congress

Courtesy of The Library of Congress

Courtesy of The Library of Congress

Courtesy of The Library of Congress

Courtesy of Detroit Historical Society

Courtesy of Detroit Historical Society

2. Fort Trumbull - New London, CT

Located midway between New York City and Boston, the City of New London, CT was once recognized as the world’s third busiest whaling port after New Bedford, MA and Nantucket. However, by the early 21st century, New London’s waterfront had lost much of its historic shipping and industrial might. Hoping to give the community an economic boost, city officials targeted 90 acres that were occupied with working-class homes in the Fort Trumbull neighborhood, for eminent domain. Under the plan, officials envisioned a mixed-use urban village adjacent to pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Inc.’s, new $300 million research facility.

Believing their properties were being seized for private rather than public use, several residents fought the city’s plans all the way to the United States Supreme Court. On February 22, 2005, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 vote in the case, Kelo v. City of New London, that the city may use eminent domain on privately owned property so that it could be used for private economic development, deciding that the tax revenue from the private development satisfied the requirement for public interest for eminent domain.

After investing $80 million to acquire and clear the land for redevelopment, financing for the project failed to materialize and the land remained vacant for years. To make matters worse, four years later, Pfizer relocated its nearby operations and 1,400 employees out of New London. If there is a silver light in this urban renewal disaster, more than 40 state legislatures would later pass laws restricting or banning the use of eminent domain for economic rejuvenation. Hopefully, we’ve seen the last of public acts that have directly led to urban renewal disasters as highlighted above.

1991 Google Earth aerial of Fort Trumbull.

2015 Google Earth aerial of Fort Trumbull.

Courtesy of the Institute For Justice

Courtesy of the Dakota voice

Courtesy of PropertyProfBlog

1. Downtown Niagara Falls, New York

2013 Google Streetview of Old Falls Street (former intersection of Falls and 2nd Streets).

Incorporated on March 17, 1892, the City of Niagara Falls developed as an industrial community, primarily due to the power offered by the nearby Niagara River. During its heyday, Downtown’s Falls Street served as the major pedestrian thoroughfare through town and as the center of the city’s tourism trade. After maxing out with 102,394 residents in 1960, the city began to decline.

Intersection of Falls Street and 2nd Street in 1908. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Seeking to turn things around, an ill-conceived federally aided urban renewal project resulted in Falls Street and most of downtown being torn down and replaced with an enclosed outlet mall, convention center, water park and surface parking lots. By the 1990s, most the things implemented as a part of the redevelopment plan had failed, as the city’s population base continued to hemorrhage.

While old authentic downtown Niagara Falls is now gone, the city has learned from its mistakes and appears to be working hard to turn things around. For example, the failed Rainbow Center mall was converted into a culinary institute for Niagara County Community College and the failed convention center was redeveloped as the Seneca Niagara Casino and hotel. As for Falls Street, the corridor now known as “Old Falls Street”, was recently revamped and is now known as a social gathering spot for the community.

Google Earth aerial of downtown Niagara Falls, NY in 1934.

1995 Google Earth aerial of downtown Niagara Falls, NY.

2015 Google Earth aerial of downtown Niagara Falls, NY.

Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at