Tomorrow night, I will be speaking at a fund-raiser for Brooklyn Speaks, and it has me thinking about real-estate development – as I begin to enter the field as a practitioner myself.

When the Court of Appeals, approved “eminent domain” to seize private property in the Atlantic Yards footprint in 2009 it made an increasingly unremarkable decision to place control over massive neighborhood development to a small number of well-connected people who are not accountable to any democratic process. There are many similar examples over the last decade or so.

Private property was taken from law-abiding people, and sold against their will to other private interests for the purpose of real-estate development that was argued to be for the public-good (by the same developers who received the land).

Democracy and Capitalism are often seen as a hand in glove relationship: you can vote and/or move your money at your own risk; and in the long run, sensible decisions on both fronts generally result.

Government intervention against development such as in the case of our glorious National Park System, Central Park, or wetlands are proven generators for more economic activity than the limited amount of direct real-estate development loss they incur.

I am sure many people were rattled beyond their worst nightmares when NYC’s subway system barged its way into existence, but the net benefits to the City are undeniable. The highway construction boom of the post WW2 era followed a similar M.O. but with less certain net-benefits to urban areas.

Our many decades of urban building stock in cities around the world, reveal both the fingerprints of individual aspiration and footprints of our collective power. The odd garage, next to a four story brownstone, next to a nine story apartment build, a smaller apartment building next to that, a diner, more brownstones, etc. It adds up to a mosaic, punctuated with the great bridges, libraries, parks, and water/sewerage systems alike.

Different people at different times in history, made their best bet on the market conditions + their resources + a panoply of banks making their own calls on how to risk depositors’ hard earned cash.

It was slow, messy, and inefficient in the short term, but it reflects our human needs and individual ability to strive and create. It has given us a legacy of architectural character that is highly valued and enjoyed by NY’ers and tourists alike.

Why is it so hard to build a beautiful well-crafted building of any size today? Where has that spirit of true contribution and pride gone?

Today, we are well aware of the dangers of allowing a small number of extremely large banks to steward our national economy. Crowd sourcing beats a small group of experts on just about everything…except surgery – I want experts for that!

Our Federal Government is in a similar fix: a small well organized group of lobbyists and special interests are determining the course of decision making in ways that most Americans do not support – “left”, “right”, or “center”.

The financing to build, and the infrastructure to support a development like Atlantic Yards requires government bonds (public debt). It’s a complex set of variables that rarely makes it into ballot box or campaign rhetoric in any meaningful form.

A smaller-scale developer rarely has access to the type and amount of money that stadium developers seem to attract as though it was their birth-right. Stadiums? Really?

I know big projects can be great projects. I recently had the privilege to visit the Porto Nuovo development in Milan, Italy. It’s a massive re-development in a central part of that great city which was formerly dominated by aging rail yards and disused industrial spaces – alongside longstanding communities of people.

Principal developers of the project, Manfredi Catella and his wife Kelly took a bold step in order to ensure there would be less community resistance to the disruptive scale of the project on the one hand, and honor the responsibility that comes with putting public debt and commitment into the hands of private developers. They put the entire project on hold for year and really listened to people in the area.

The project changed in some big and small ways as a result. There were some hold outs and confrontations to be sure, but the level of conflict was so greatly reduced that the developers saved millions of Euros, people are happier, and an example has been demonstrated.

In contrast, Atlantic Yards developers and their agents bought the image of “community support” through some unscrupulous non-profit organizations that accepted money for that purpose. It is a bitter source of tension for locals and opponents of government meddling in private affairs, alike.

Rather than argue about Atlantic Yards, or even concentrate on NYC; it is my hope that everyone from the Tea Party to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators will help bring the nation together towards re-democratizing Eminent Domain, our Finance Industry, and our Government.

It’s not about some financial industry boogey-man out there – it’s us. We let this happen. Everyone looked out for their self interests, except “the people”. We have let way to many distractions occupy the time and emotional/mental energy needed to keep our democratic heritage in top form.

Important issues are less and less frequently finding their way to democracy’s table. It’s causing inefficiencies in our markets and our civic life. We can all do better. I hope i can help.

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