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Chester Hartman
Urban Planner
Author: The Transformation of San Francisco

Chester Hartman
watch the movie (500k)

Video Credit: KQED 1999


On Eminent Domain

How do you amass large enough parcels to clear a slum if, in fact, there are hundreds, possibly thousands of owners of the property? One basic piece of legislation was the concept of eminent domain, which is in the Constitution. The government has the right to go in and forcibly take property, with compensation. Regardless of whether the owner wishes to sell the property, they must sell it to the government in order to accomplish some kind of public good. A major element of urban renewal is the right of a local redevelopment agency to use the government's eminent domain powers to gain control of an entire neighborhood, or part of a city. And the role of the Redevelopment Agency, therefore, was to take this land by eminent domain, assemble a large enough parcel, and then give it to a private developer to supposedly do something in the public interest.

On the Goals of Redevelopment

The underlying goals were largely economic and not social: to increase the city's tax base, to push out users who were not considered the best use of the land. Many of the areas that were torn down were not necessarily slums by any objective definition. And there were certainly areas that could have been improved rather than cleared. Nor did the redevelopment process in San Francisco take very good care of the people who lived there. Presumably, if you want to clear a slum, it is not just for the benefit of the city, it's for the benefit of the slum dwellers who are being negatively affected by their living conditions. In city after city, there were occasional studies done of what happened to those people afterwards: you would consistently find that people who were displaced were worse off after urban renewal than before. Basically the underlying motive for all of the urban renewal projects in San Francisco was to use the urban renewal powers to get those people out of there and do something better with that land, as far as the city was concerned.


reporter interviewing man
Photo Credit: San Francisco Redevelopment Archives

On Justin Herman

Justin Herman was an extraordinary practitioner of the urban renewal game. He knew the Federal legislation because he had come from the Housing and Home Finance Agency: the equivalent of today's Housing and Urban Development Agency. The Redevelopment Agency was weak and understaffed. Herman knew he had to build a competent and strong agency. He reminds me of Robert Moses in New York, Edward Logue who worked in New Haven, and later in Boston. These were cities that had massive and effective, in the sense of getting a lot done, urban renewal programs, largely because of the talent and aggressiveness of these particular men.

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