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Public Policy Statement 45. Runaway use of eminent domain and the effect on the inner city Frederick F. Butters, Esq., FAIA Director. Michigan Region. 45. Eminent Domain

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Public Policy Statement 45

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public policy statement 45
Public Policy Statement 45
  • Runaway use of eminent domain and the effect on the inner city
  • Frederick F. Butters, Esq., FAIA
  • Director. Michigan Region

45. Eminent Domain

The AIA believes that eminent domain can be a necessary and appropriate tool for government to secure land for the reasonable implementation of publicly owned projects. Only under very special and unique circumstances should that tool be used for projects that will ultimately revert to private ownership.In these circumstances, eminent domain should be considered a tool of last resort and only be applied if there is a clear and compelling public need and benefit demonstrated and supported through an open, broad-based, and transparent community planning process. In all cases, eminent domain should be applied in ways that fairly consider the value of existing land uses and communities, while respecting individual citizens’ rights, and community history.


45. Eminent Domain

The AIA believes that eminent domain can be a necessary and appropriate tool for government to secure land for the reasonable implementation of publicly owned projects. In all cases, eminent domain should be applied in ways that fairly consider the value of existing land uses and communities, while respecting individual citizens’ rights, and community history.


Poletownwas a section of Detroit, Michigan bordering the enclave city of Hamtramck, Michigan. The area was named after the Polish immigrants who originally settled in the area. The neighborhood was destroyed in 1981 and the residents relocated by the City of Detroit, utilizing eminent domain in order to make way for an automobile plant

First settled in the 1870s when the first waves of Polish immigrants came to Detroit, Poletown was the heart of Detroit's Polish community for many years. The nucleus of the community was the St. Albertus Catholic Church, which opened in 1873 and closed in 1990. Poletown experienced its greatest period of growth during the 1920s and 1930s as thousands of Polish immigrants came to Detroit in search of jobs in auto plants and the slaughterhouses. Poletown was not only home to Poles, but also to Italian Americans and African Americans.


In 1981 the neighborhood was cleared to make way for the construction of a GM assembly plant. The city of Detroit relied on eminent domain to compel the displacement of the 4,200 people who lived in the area, along with their 1,300 homes, 140 businesses, six churches and one hospital.

465 acres that was once the Poletown neighborhood was seized through eminent domain proceedings and was razed and deeded to GM. GM constructed a $500 million assembly plant in 1985.

The old Dodge Main plant was also deeded to GM, and together with Poletown the area was cleared for what was to be a 2,990,000-square-foot manufacturing facility. Plans called for support operations, parking, and ancillary businesses and spill over redevelopment for the portion of the site not occupied by the plant itself


Dodge Main (Area Bounded in Red)

Limits of Eminent Domain (Area Bounded in Green)


GM Poletown

Assembly today


But Poletown's plight can not be so simply put. When GM contemplated the new plant, it promised to employ 6,000 workers in a city where unemployment was then at 18%. It also promised to contribute an initial $8.1 million a year in tax revenues to Detroit and the enclosed City of Hamtramck.

The confrontation shaped up quickly when GM announced the closing of two Detroit plants that together employed 6,000 people. At the same time, GM declared its intention to build a modern factory within the City limits if what it deemed to be a suitable site could be found.

After examining a few sites the City offered GM a tract that not only included the shuttered Dodge Main Assembly, but also swallowed up the surrounding Poletown neighborhood.


GM played hardball and insisted that the new plant had to be built and in operation by early 1983, so the City took advantage of a recent Michigan law allowing a City to acquire land for use by private enterprise. Detroit began a crash program of forcing home and business owners to sell their properties

Not all residents were pleased


Many Poletown residents themselves saw it differently

A study completed by the University of Michigan concluded that “The Poletown neighborhood was a rare commodity in an urban environment: a stable, integrated area that in many ways harkened back to the close-knit ethnic communities that characterized Detroit's past” and that “many residents cherished their neighborhood, where milkmen still made their rounds, local policemen regularly walked their beats and lunched at Carl Fisher's Famous Bar-B-Q Restaurant, and where, one resident recalled, "[p]eople watched out for one another.... In the suburbs, it's keep up with the Joneses.' Over here, nobody cared. You were neighbors."

Even as late as 1980, the community was known for its sound housing stock, its low rents, its good access to shops and services, and its tolerance for divergent ethnic groups and religious denominations


Immaculate Conception Church became ground zero for the opposition. The last official Mass was held in May of 1981. A 29-day sit-in at the Church came to an end on July 14, 1981. Police evicted and arrested the 20 people who remained

That very same day everything was moved out of the church and it was demolished. A few months later, Father Karasiewicz , the parish priest, who had never been reassigned a new church, died of a heart attack.


In 1981 Poletown was billed as Detroit's salvation. GM promised 6,500 jobs and feeder factories that would surround the complex, creating thousands more jobs. Businesses would spring up to serve these manufacturing operations and their employees.

Poletown assembly today employs approximately 1,800 workers, and has never employed more than 3,000 workers. In recent years the plant has been considered for closure. Much of the 650 acres around the plant is dedicated to sprawling parking lot or is vacant. Only 14 percent of the land has actually been redeveloped. 

By one account more jobs were lost from the destruction of Poletown than were created by the factory. The City also believed that the new plant would indeed attract other feeder plants and businesses nearby. They never materialized, and with tax abatements and other incentives given to GM factored in, it was a fiscal disaster for the City.


Because the City took advantage of the Michigan “Quick Take” statue, the actual costs of acquiring the property are unknown.

Under traditional eminent domain principles, the government was required to reach an agreement or litigate the purchase price before the property could be taken. Under the “Quick Take” approach, the City could take the property and litigate the price later. A few Poletown residents took the City offer, but most litigated. Those who litigated in every instance received substantially more than the City offered. By some estimates, the acquisition costs ran into the billions – well beyond any estimates

In addition, despite generous tax incentives, GM has continually litigated tax issues related to the plant such that the project has also been a financial disaster for the State of Michigan as well as the City of Detroit.

How bad the ultimate financial cost was will never be known


Because of the federal government's Toxic Release Inventory, we know today that the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck Poletown assembly plant is among the "dirtiest/worst facilities in the U.S."

Between 1988 and 2002, the time period for which data is available, the Poletown factory emitted 17,632,569 pounds of air pollution. The top cancer risk, and a large portion of the pollutants emitted, is benzene. Poletown is ranked as the seventh worst source of "suspected cardiovascular or blood toxicants released into the air.“

Added to that are the untold tons of pollution coming out of the vehicle exhausts of the Cadillac cars once they hit the street. In 1995 the U.S. Justice Department ordered a recall of almost half a million Cadillacs (Poletown Assembly products) and fined GM nearly $45 million for intentionally overriding emissions controls in the car's catalytic converters which resulted in an additional 100,000 tons of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.


Poletown Today

With one of the dirtiest plants in the US in your backyard the surrounding areas are not attractive for residences or small businesses.

Wayne County, which includes Detroit, ended January 2010 with 3,364 homes in active foreclosure, the highest of any U.S. county by more than 1,000, according to of Boca Raton, Florida.

With one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, Michigan has doubled its foreclosures over the past two years.

As a consequence the neighborhoods surrounding Poletown Assembly have themselves begun to deteriorate, literally rotting from the inside out.


The abandoned area surrounding Poletown Assembly is now large enough to accommodate the entire city of San Francisco or the entire City of Miami. A hole that can accommodate a major American City within the urban fabric of a City once proudly referred to as the Paris of the Midwest

The City of Detroit has disconnected utilities and has permitted the area to grow wild. Most structures are completely gone and wildlife is actually returning. The area is not routinely patrolled by the police who avoid it unless they are specifically called to respond.

Meanwhile, homeowner fights are taking place all over the country in places like Norwood, Ohio (contesting a shopping complex), Long Beach, N.J. (contesting condominiums) and Rivera Beach, Fla., where a mostly African American, blue-collar community of 6,000 is fighting an eminent domain attempt to destroy their homes in order to build a yachting and upper-scale residential complex.


In the wake of the demise of the Poletown neighborhood, up to 20 state legislatures are considering how to reign in eminent domain. Now is the time for a comprehensive, honest evaluation of the lives forever changed by Poletown.

Poletown itself was litigated through the Michigan Supreme Court where the Court found the taking constitutional. In 2004 the Michigan Supreme Court reversed that decision, concluding that the use of eminent domain to acquire property that will be subsequently turned over for private use is repugnant the Michigan Constitution.

Michigan voters have also approved an amendment to the Michigan Constitution that prohibits the use of eminent domain where the acquired property will be dedicated to private use.

It is time that AIA policy follow suit