Seizing for Sport

In less than a week, two capital cities are preparing to use eminent domain to build professional sports stadiums.  Talk about foul play.

The Sacramento city council voted 7-2 on August 13 to help the Sacramento Kings negotiate with the owner of a Macy’s.  As the Sacramento Bee points out, “The city’s involvement in the talks carries with it a key negotiating tool: the threat of seizing control of the property through eminent domain.”  That Macy’s Men Store is the last property the Kings have yet to acquire for the arena and may be condemned if negotiations fail.  But just because they’re called the Kings doesn’t mean they should have the right to seize peasants people’s land.

Construction hasn’t even begun and the Kings are already corporate welfare queens: the city council has voted to provide the arena $258 million in public funding.  Unfortunately, sports subsidies are increasingly common.
Over in Washington, D.C., officials are prepared to authorize eminent domain to build a new stadium for the DC United, the worst team in Major League Soccer.  This 20,000 seat stadium is expected to cost $300 million, with half of that coming out of the taxpayers’ pockets.  Yet the team sold for $50 million in 2012.  In other words, the United will be getting a brand new stadium that’s worth six times as much as the team itself.

The final property at the proposed location in Buzzard Point is Super Salvage, D.C.’s last remaining salvage yard.  According to Super Salvage’s Chief Financial Officer Bob Bullock, “nobody from the D.C. government has been in touch with us.”  In fact, the company first learned their property could be taken from the press.  The yard is currently valued at $7.5 million.
Super Salvage is hesitant to relocate, since there aren’t exactly many other places in the District for a salvage yard business.  While there has been some controversy over who precisely owns that parcel, “ultimately the city will exercise eminent domain to acquire any pieces we can’t acquire,” City Administrator Allen Lew said in an interview with City Paper.

Unfortunately, this is just the latest in D.C.’s long, ignoble history of abusing eminent domain.  In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in Berman v. Parker upheld the District of Columbia forcibly removing 5,000 working-class African-Americans from their homes for “urban renewal.”  As David Beito and Ilya Somin note, Berman enabled the massive urban renewal condemnations of later decades…Some 3 to 4 million Americans, most of them ethnic minorities, have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of urban renewal takings since World War II.”

More recently, DC received $28 million in federal subsidies to seize 18 acres of businesses for a new mall.  That mall will house hundreds of condos and possibly a Wal-Mart when it’s finished in 2016.  In fact, this DC United stadium isn’t even the first time the District has condemned private property for its sports teams.  Back in 2005, 16 properties were taken by the city to build a new stadium for the Washington Nationals.

Alas, Sacramento and Washington, DC are not alone in seizing for sport.  In 2009, New York’s highest court upheld condemning 50 properties to make way for a new basketball arena for the Brooklyn Nets.  Down in Arlington, Tex. during the 90s, George W. Bush even profited from eminent domain for sports stadiums, turning his initial investment of $600,000 into a cool $15 million when the Texas Rangers were sold in 1998.

Daniel McGraw elaborates in Reason:

The team “convinced local voters to approve a 1991 tax increase that helped build a new $191 million stadium. The city of Arlington used eminent domain to acquire the property from hundreds of private owners, claiming that the stadium was a ‘public use,’ just like highways, schools, or government buildings…But it has produced little of the promised economic benefit to Arlington, and there has never been a real ‘public use’ factor aside from baseball fans’ paying their money to see games.”

Taking private property to benefit multimillion dollar professional sports teams demonstrates just how elastic “public use” has become.

— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla works at IJ as a Maffucci Fellow.

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