Eminent Domain for My People

eminent_domain_rengstorff_underpass

City Council conducted a study session on February 11 to discuss the Rengstorff train crossing project. The location of this project is the intersection of Central Expressway and Rengstorff Avenue. In addition to car, pedestrian, and foot traffic, there is also a train-crossing at this intersection, and high-speed rail is being proposed to run on those same tracks. The purpose of the session as stated on the official documents was to “review grade-separation concepts to improve pedestrian and bicycle access and connectivity in association with the Council-adopted Rengstorff Avenue Grade- Separation Policy.” I personally went to the session representing the Castro City neighborhood where I have lived since 2004. This underpass, if approved/funded, would completely redirect 1 of the 3 streets that access my neighborhood and the MiPueblo market would have no vehicle access. I am quoted in the Mountain View Voice article about the project- ”There isn’t a person in Mountain View who does not hate this intersection,” said one resident who lives nearby.

I led off my 3 minute speech to Council with the aforementioned comment about the intersection, but my intention in showing up and addressing Council was to remind them to consider the livelihood of nearby residents when planning this project. Honestly, it scares me to think that an overpass or underpass would be constructed 2 blocks from my house. Frankly, one of my goals in attending was to start thinking about when exactly I should put my house on the market to unload it before the groundbreaking on what would be a years-long project. That’s common sense, right? …concern about an underpass 2 blocks from my house. What percentage of overpass/underpass projects improve the surrounding neighborhoods? (just guessing, maybe 5%, if not lower). Now, I’m not a knee-jerk anti-progress kind of person. In fact, I like city improvement projects so long as they are well planned and well designed. My intention was to make the point that residents in the neighborhood should be respected and considered as part of the long term goal. Though the stated goal of the project is to “improve pedestrian and bicycle access and connectivity”, the real goal as I see it is to make traffic flow faster and increase driving speeds at the intersection of Central Expressway and Rengstorff Avenue so that people in cars won’t be inconvenienced by the congestion at this intersection.

Once I had made my comments to Council and listened to the rest of the study session, there was little mention of quality of life for the residents of my neighborhood. Instead of quality of life for people who live here and walk to MiPueblo market, any consideration of residents became about “increased property value” as in, the City might pay more for your home than it is worth, before they take it from you and build the underpass. Eminent domain. Period.

Here is an excerpt from the MV Voice article reporting on the study session:

“…The three homes next to Mi Pueblo would lose their driveways because of the need to depress that portion of Rengstorff. The homes would also stand in the way of a new routing of Leland Avenue around the lowered section of Rengstorff.
If the property owners felt their businesses were no longer viable without their street access, “hopefully we’d come to a price,” to buy those properties, [public works director] Fuller said. “Otherwise, there’s eminent domain or other options.”
Council member Jac Siegel noted that “eminent domain was invented to do a lot for many people versus the few who might get hurt from it” while members Margaret Abe-Koga and John Inks noted that governments often end up paying more for properties taken through eminent domain than they would otherwise be worth, something Abe-Koga said was evident as a VTA board member working to extend BART to San Jose…”

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In this case, eminent domain is for “The People” and not the people. Since when does eminent domain have a positive connotation? In high school, we learned about eminent domain in the context of a history lesson; private property being taken away from tax paying families by their own government in the name of progress. People in poorer neighborhoods losing their homes so that People in Cars driving through their neighborhood will not have to be inconvenienced by having to slow down. The good of the many over the good of the few. It’s all in how you frame or re-frame the discussion.

The next course of action for me should be to start a neighborhood association. I am pretty sure I was the only Castro City resident at the meeting.

You can download the study session report for this project here.

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