The Rockefeller Center Lesson for Government Planners


By Martin Harris

Martin Harris

As surely as folks in government will use phrases like “…at the end of the day…” and “…we need a conversation on [whatever they’ve already decided]…” they will use their Eminent Domain doctrine -we, the highly intelligent in government, can manage land-use decisions better than you, the less intelligent not in government–

to assert control over things your inadequate free market just won’t or can’t handle properly. This Progressive-origin thesis is widely supported, not only by those in government who derive both fun and profit from telling others what to do, but by those not (yet?) in government as well. A telling example showed up in the LttE column of the 22 April Rutland Herald, wherein the writer argues that Vermont’s present 80% forest land use was raised from a low 20% through the efforts of “…generations of Vermonters dedicated to re-constituting Vermont’s original beauty…” and ties his argument to his vision for a shut-down of Vermont Yankee, which uses a metallic (uranium) alloy, not a forest product, for light, heat, and power purposes, some formerly met with wood fuel.

Here’s the W.G. (full name compassionately redacted here) quote: “Now, thanks to generations of Vermonters dedicated to re-constituting Vermont’s original beauty, the State is nearly 80% forested again.” He would have done better, historical-accuracy-wise, to credit the thousands of hill-farmers who fled Vermont for the deep-topsoil flatlands of the newly-opened West after the Civil War, a sum of individual-entrepreneur decisions economist Adam Smith called “the invisible hand” of the free market, leaving behind the vestigial cellar-holes and lilac bushes celebrated by poet Robert Frost (“…the mountain pushed us off her knees, and now her lap is full of trees…”) nearly a century ago and still grieved by the Herald in an annually repeated springtime editorial. All that forest-creation began a century before the Vermont Natural Resources Council was even thought of (apparently in 1972; the website offers no charter or founding year).

Your Humble Scribe isn’t the first to take note of the irony built into Progressive celebration and preservation of now-historic field, village, and individual-building qualities created by just the class of unregulated free-market entrepreneurs now deemed incapable of similar quality of work today, which explains why they, the self-described best and brightest among us, are enthusiasts for control, by them, with guidelines ranging from zoning and building regulation to bike path and light bulb subsidy. Indeed, my first (and, indeed, pre-H.S.-status) exposure to it came in the shape of a halls-of-ivy study of Rockefeller Center, the city-within-the-city long identified as one of the very first of the contemporary models for urban planning, regrettably small in scale but clearly better than a City-wide Great Fire clearing the land for a 17th century Architect Wren re-construction of London or City-wide riots clearing the way for a Baron Haussman 19th century demolition of whole Paris neighborhoods for wide boulevards enabling future mob control. If there was a fault with Rockefeller Center, we were taught, it was the few holdout brownstone owners whose refusal to sell-and-leave spoiled the Rockefeller Master Plan, a problem for planners brilliantly corrected in our own time with the then-new urban renewal rules enabling us (once we had graduated into controlling positions in urban renewal design and execution) to dispossess such trouble-makers for the greater good. In the bad old days of the 1930’s, the legal concept of eminent domain (your high school Civics student will surely know the relevant Bill of Rights Amendment number and content) hadn’t yet morphed from just Public Use (where government construction needed critical land) to include, even more importantly, Public Benefit, where it became OK to take property from unworthy private owner A and sell it at less-than-market price to favored private owner B, who would do better (translation: generate more tax revenues) with it, so the Rockefeller planners and architects had to design around, among others, hold-outs at 1240 Sixth Avenue and 12 Wesr 49th Street. In a case of higher-education academic cruelty equal to the then-prevalent acceptance in smoking-in-class, we were forced to look at photographs of the gleaming nearly-new marble, concrete, and aluminum RC skyscrapers with the offensive brownstones among them like rotting teeth adjacent to healthy ones. Within a few years, they were all extracted, as owners or their estates sold willingly; contemporary photo’s of RC show only a hint -a fake traditional cornice, in the case of 1240, now a Magnolia’s bakery outlet- showing where they were. The obvious point: in a free market, owners will sell at a market price, and the concealed purpose of governmentally-enforced P.B. has mostly been one of forcing unwilling owners to sell at less-than-market. RC had no P.B. power and accomplished its design intent anyway. The parallels to the OMYA rail spur argument are clear. And so are the contrasts: all States spend (in the VT case, “spent” is more accurate) lavishly to entice industry; it would require a fraction of such past spending (as in the Colchester-Husky case) I’d guess, to satisfy owners of potential rail-spur square footage. Or maybe, the price argument points to a better solution.

Admitted deficiency in the Nostradamus skills: your Humble Scribe failed to save for future use clippings, from decades back, about the slurry pipeline transport of coal in the inter-mountain West, and its applicability to the moving of marble rubble the few miles from quarry to existing railside in Addison County. In the West, the environmental objection was water-scarcity-based (partially a cover for a concealed anti-coal bias) but in VT Otter Creek water could be “borrowed” at the Middlebury latitude, cleaned and re-streamed at the Pittsford latitude. Could water-supply and slurry-transport pipelines buried within existing public highway r.o.w.’s be installed and operated at costs less than a short-haul railroad system? We don’t know, but that’s because (H.S. guess) the eminent-domain-for-questionable-purpose power of government (which, in VT, owns most of the trackage/acreage) is so attractive to would-be wielders that no one in government has deemed it desirable to publish the numbers which (H.S. guess) they already know, even though the stats exist for, say, the presently-operating Black Mesa coal-slurry pipeline in Nevada, and projections for the newer pipelines now in planning. For a probable explanation, see the quotes of Lord Acton and William Pitt on the subject.