Thursday, December 08, 2005

Interesting Bedfellows for Local Land Use Study

On Tuesday, November 29, the Shreveport Times editorial enthusiastically endorsed a $125,000 study of the Shreveport/Bossier metropolitan area by an organization known for its efforts on behalf of urban sprawl-reducing “smart” growth. According to the Times, “A team from the Urban Land Institute especially will look at how real estate planning and development can lead to more economic development.” A number of innovative local organizations and developments are then praised for a number of worthy projects.
This all sounds very encouraging, until one takes a closer look at the Urban Land Institute. Among the efforts of the ULI is the annual awarding of the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. According to the ULI’s website, “The $100,000 prize honors the legacy of legendary, Kansas City, Missouri, develop Jesse Clyde Nichols (1880-1950), a founding ULI member who is widely regarded as one of America’s most influential entrepreneurs in land use during the first half of the 20th century.” Indeed, an internet search of the words “Kansas City” and “J.C. Nichols” turns up multiple references, including some landmarks named for the developer. But his legacy is a tainted one, at best.
According to Judy Thomas, writing in February of this year in the Kansas City Star, Nichols was also a pioneer in the development of racial covenants, documents which prohibited homeowners from selling houses to select groups of people, most often African-Americans: “Nichols was among the first developers in the United States to promote the restrictions. From 1908 through the 1940’s, the J.C. Nichols Co. built dozens of subdivisions in the Kansas City area that prohibited housing sales to blacks.” According to Thomas, the covenants were ruled unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court as early as 1948, although many are still officially included in real estate contracts.
The Urban Land Institute is also active in the Gulf Coast region in post-Katrina rebuilding. New Orleans writer and activist Jay Arena has written about their activities in that city, and it was his writings on the New Orleans indymedia site (neworleans.indymedia.org) that alerted me to some of the moral and ethical ambiguities. I don’t believe the Urban Land Institute embodies the outright, blatant racism of J.C. Nichols, but their continued embrace of his name does raise some questions.

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