[Developers'] archvillain status today — merely invoking “developers” can shut down civic debate — deserves scrutiny, for two reasons.1
Real estate developers are indeed fraught characters in city life (sometimes they do try to put politicians in their pockets). And the history of American development certainly includes shady land speculation schemes, racist intentions and bloated egos (see any Robert Moses biography).
But at its best, development has also meant progress in America. And that possibility has been banished from recent debate. We’ve gone from allowing that new development might enhance our cities to fearing that it will surely detract from what’s already here. Or, worse, destroy it.
The story of why that happened is less about developers themselves than the forces around them: the economics of the industry, the politics of growth, the available land that’s dwindled and the inequality that’s grown.
But it is simpler to jeer the huckster standing before the planning commission.
- 1. The notion that development is inherently bad, or that developers are inherently bad actors, seems to ignore that the communities residents want to protect from developers were once developed, too, and often by people who made money at it. (That is, unless you believe in “immaculate construction.”)