My freshman dorm never had a refrigerator. Honestly, given the general lack of communication between my suite mates and I, we were lucky to have a stained, off-white rug from the sidewalk outside Trumbull College shedding all over our floor. Securing something as 20th-century as a mini-fridge was simply beyond our negotiating abilities.
So my 12-pack of Diet Mountain Dew sat on the windowsill between an out-of-ink printer and a stray sock. My slowly decaying gums welcomed the lukewarm soft drinks even at late-April room temperature, but my girlfriend thought they tasted like sadness.
New London, Connecticut is either warmly sad or sadly warm. After riding the 4:30 commuter rail from New Haven’s Union Station to New London’s smaller Union Station, Andy and I discarded the crumpled remains of two cans of Warm Sadness and walked out onto Parade Plaza, a recently redone gray brick triangle sporting the mandatory war memorial and a sculpted whale inexplicably spewing water from its back fin. Union Station, a boxy office building, and a four-story parking garage loosely bordered the airy space. To our left, the colorful, densely packed storefronts of Bank Street begged us to spend our scant tourist dollars within them. We headed that way.
Parade Plaza, New London. Photo courtesy of newlondonlandmarks.org
Private Property for Public Use
Andy and I had come to this city of 27,000 to see what can happen when local governments use eminent domain to directly promote private enterprise. Traditionally, governments have claimed eminent domain—effectively government ownership over private property—in order to repurpose private land for public use or benefit.
When a city condemns an abandoned apartment complex to make way for a post office or cuts a low-income neighborhood in half with a new highway, it uses the power of eminent domain to take control of the land it needs, compensating residents and property owners for their losses.
“…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” -Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment
Though the rationale behind claiming eminent domain can be unsavory, many see it as a fair way for the city, state, or federal government to advance the public interest. It often improves taxpayers’ lives by making room for new roads, courthouses, or public parks.
New London, however, presents a special case. In 1997, the New London Development Corporation (NLDC), granted the power of eminent domain by the city, convinced pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to build a research and development headquarters by offering the company a prime parcel of land near Fort Trumbull, on the west bank of the Thames River. The city hoped that Pfizer, which already owned a complex across the river in Groton, CT, would anchor a modern business campus with offices, hotels, and restaurants that could bring in jobs and tax revenue.
The New London skyline as seen from the Fort Trumbull area.
The only problem: the dozens of homeowners currently living along the riverbank. Though the area wasn’t particularly well-to-do, it was still an actively used neighborhood, full of residents unwilling to donate their land for the construction of the proposed “urban village.”
To acquire the site, the NLDC expanded the definition of “public use,” claiming that they could use eminent domain to transfer property not only from a private to a public owner, but also from one private owner to another in the name of economic development.
According to the city government (and other struggling municipalities eager to attract business), condemning private land and handing it over to a new private developer was in the public interest because both the city and its residents would benefit economically from the redeveloped land. Using eminent domain, New London could condemn the homes occupying the proposed site, sell the land to a private developer, and enjoy the tax windfalls that came when companies like Pfizer moved into the newly-constructed campus.
Residents like Susette Kelo, whose pink, two-story home was one of the dozens condemned to make way for Pfizer, didn’t buy the NLDC’s argument. She sued the city, arguing that it couldn’t claim eminent domain over her neighborhood because private redevelopment didn’t count as “public use” of the condemned land.
In Kelo v. City of New London, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the benefits reaped by the general public due to private redevelopment did indeed fall within the boundaries of “public use.” Decided in 2005, the case confirmed the legality of using eminent domain for economic development, effectively allowing cities to favor one type of private development over another. Cities already had the power to influence new developments through zoning ordinances, but now they could swap ownership of whole neighborhoods from one private property owner to another in the name of the city’s overall health.
By that time, most of the site had already been cleared and readied for redevelopment. Pfizer, further courted by a tax exemption allowing it to pay just 1/5 of its property taxes for 10 years, had moved into its 750,000-square-foot headquarters in 2001. The now decisively condemned homes were either demolished or relocated.
Nature Will Dictate the Evolution of This Resource
More than a decade later, the urban village hadn’t materialized. As Andy and I walked along Bank Street on the way to the Pfizer complex, we encountered a dazzling, tightly packed collection of art galleries and touristy restaurants whose back porches overlooked the Thames, but even this lively downtown couldn’t hide the city’s unfulfilled potential.
Packed pubs leaking warm laughter and muffled rock music out into the late afternoon air sat next to vacant storefronts whose vibrant paint had begun to fall away in flecks. Strategically placed public art drawing on New London’s whaling heritage couldn’t mask the budget establishments that became more common with each block.
The city seemed to lack the economic critical mass needed to sustain continuous rows of booming businesses on both sides of the street. As we made our way farther from the city center, the unbroken lines of mixed-use structures gave way to assorted boating schools and suppliers on one side and a grassy industrial park with stodgy office complexes on the other.
Soon, the sidewalk started to crumble a little. We took a left, passing under the railroad tracks that had brought us into the city. We approached the Pfizer site, or what was left of it.
Pfizer left New London in 2009, shortly after merging with Wyeth, one of its competitors. To save costs, the company abandoned its $294 million R&D complex, moving more than 1,000 jobs into its Groton facility. Four years after winning its eminent domain battle in the Supreme Court, New London lost the firm it had been fighting to keep.
The city paid the price. In addition to weathering the I-told-you-so’s from displaced residents like Kelo, New London had to cope with the reality that Pfizer had never paid more than a fifth of the property taxes merited by its giant complex. And now that the pharmaceutical company was gone, no one was willing to build the hotels and restaurants that were supposed to support it.
Much of the former Fort Trumbull neighborhood remains empty or underutilized today. The Bank Street businesses sorely miss all the promised workers and shoppers.
Perhaps the saddest part of the failed urban village is the Pfizer campus itself. The company had originally planned to create an environmentally friendly complex that complemented the Thames’ ecosystem:
Bounded by Bentley Creek on the left and a parking lot on the right, this walkway led through the heart of Pfizer’s campus.
Panels along the walkway touted the complex’s natural beauty.
Pfizer styled itself a steward of the surrounding environment.
The Pfizer compound in 2016, now owned by General Dynamics.
Some of the information panels had disappeared.
From Australia! The Naked Magic Show
After a quick look at Fort Trumbull itself, we headed back downtown. Bank Street seemed just a bit sadder as the clouds darkened to dusk. What would downtown look like if the urban village had been built? Would it have thrived off the influx of researchers and hotel staff? Would it have died off as the more profitable stores relocated closer to the village?
Was the potential for an economic boom worth razing a neighborhood?
Mohican Apartments on State Street
Arriving again at Parade Plaza, we turned left and started down State Street, which was a little less colorful—and a bit more imposing—than Bank Street. City Hall, the First Congregational Church, and the Mohican Apartments building towered majestically overhead. Each was double the size of anything in my downtown, though my city has twice the population.
The Garde Arts Center on State Street
State Street also exuded that warm sadness. One painted side street would beckon with two or three galleries, then the next would lie fallow. The sizable public library stood across the street from a theater currently headlined by naked Australians doing magic tricks. Downtown was ready for a flood of new residents, but none would arrive anytime soon.
The city looked as if it had been waiting a bit too long for a suitor to knock on its door.
I’m Gonna Stick with You Two
“Really? New London? Why would you guys choose to come here?”
Andy and I threw out a few um’s and oh-you-knows as we fumbled for a believable response to the server’s question. Neither one of us really wanted to tell her that we’d taken a 45-minute train ride from our Ivy League campus just to gawk at the empty lots that were her city’s claim to urban studies fame, especially not after she’d recommended Andy try a slice of Hawaiian pizza because it was just her favorite thing on the menu.
In her defense, the pizza was really good. As were the chocolate cupcakes she’d recommended for dessert. She even fed our egos with questions about what we were studying.
I told her about my prospective major in American Studies, joking that I probably wouldn’t get a real job with my frilly humanities degree. She later told us that she rarely used her psychology degree while serving pizza by night and investigating gangs for a correctional facility each day.
Though the intricacies of paying at restaurants still elude me, I did my best to tip her well. Her warmth was refreshing after spending the afternoon skulking around Pfizer’s dismal campus.
It was almost 8:00 by the time we left—our train to New Haven would be leaving soon. We headed back down the now-illuminated State Street and returned to Union Station.
Our train was on the farthest set of tracks, with no discernible way to board. At the information desk, we discovered that the train would eventually pull ahead a few yards, after which the conductors would tell us when to safely cross the tracks and get on.
We’d been waiting outside the station for a few minutes when the information desk worker came out and directed someone over to us. Conditioned to think every stranger walking toward me was a homeless person looking for money, I eyed the man nervously as he approached us.
He was a broad guy with a beer in one hand. He wore construction worker pants and was bundled up against the spring night.
The information desk employee had apparently deemed us experts on the train boarding process and told the man we knew how to get on the train. After shaking hands and offering us a drink, he made sure we were heading his way.
Once he was sure of that, he started telling us about his day. That he’d come to New London to pick up a paycheck from his boss who lived around here, then went to see his girlfriend—or was it his boss’s girlfriend? It’s been a while since he talked to us, and honestly, his story was kind of hard to follow. His voice was raspy, his plot slippery.
Still, he was talkative and friendly. “I’m gonna stick with you two,” he told us as he walked away to lean on a pole. “You let me know when I gotta get on the train.”
And we did. By the time we boarded, I knew more about his day than my suite mates’, though I didn’t complain when he chose not to sit near us.
New London, with its vibrant storefronts, dilapidated campuses, naked Australian magic shows, and crime-fighting pizza servers, is a complex place. Though Pfizer’s departure hobbled downtown, the residents seem to be standing strong. I’m still not sure if the city's sadly warm or warmly sad.