Hartford Courant on 15 November 2009

Taken In Vain

by Jeff Benedict

With Pfizer Leaving, City Has Nothing But Weedy Acres To Show For Grandiose Development Scheme That Uprooted Homeowners And Razed A Neighborhood

Taken In Vain

I'm often asked if I'd consider writing a novel. My answer is always no, truth is better than fiction . . . and often harder to swallow.

Consider the bitter pill that Pfizer Inc. slipped New London this week. Barely a decade after constructing a $300 million research and development headquarters in the city, the pharmaceutical giant announced it was shutting down the facility. Just like that, New London will lose 1,400 jobs and become home to a gigantic, vacant office park that sprawls over a 24-acre campus.

Never mind that an entire residential neighborhood was bulldozed by New London to change the look of a 90-acre landscape around the Pfizer campus. And never mind that along the way the city used eminent domain to drive out homeowners and then fought a costly eight-year legal battle against holdouts Susette Kelo and her neighbors that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Fifth Amendment has always allowed government to take private property for public use. But in its most universally despised decision in decades, the court upheld the takings in New London by equating public benefits - the promise of increased tax revenues and new jobs - with public use.

In other words, the potential of a massive redevelopment scheme anchored by the arrival of Pfizer's facility justified evicting homeowners who stood in the way of progress. There's just one stubborn fact: It's been four years since the infamous Kelo ruling and the city hasn't gotten a thing built on the 90 acres it now controls.

After all the shouting, the developer ran out of money and the city has zero prospective replacements. Barren weed fields are all that exist where homes once stood.

Now that all of New London's best-laid plans have been laid to rest, Pfizer is leaving, too. It's tempting to suspect a connection. After all, let's not forget that Pfizer never wanted to make its corporate home on the edge of New London's urban Fort Trumbull neighborhood. "Pfizer wants a nice place to operate," one well-connected Pfizer employee famously told a reporter shortly after New London officials courted the drug company. "We don't want to be surrounded by tenements."

What Pfizer wanted next door is what drove New London's plan to raze buildings and replace them with a five-star hotel, a health club and spa, office space and upscale housing. At one point, Pfizer even talked about guaranteeing 50 percent occupancy at the hotel. The state did its part to sweeten the deal by kicking in close to $100 million in public money to the project, some of which was used to acquire and demolish private homes.

In the end, the Pfizer facility is the only thing that went up, although many would argue that a lot of taxpayer money went up, too - in smoke, that is. At least Pfizer employees haven't had to look at tenements for the past 10 years. But how are those brownfields looking about now?

Truth be told, Pfizer's decision to abandon New London is driven by the bottom line. The drug company is closing five other research sites as well. It's part of the fallout from Pfizer's $68 billion takeover of drug-maker Wyeth. When you play with those kind of numbers, it's easy to see that a $300 million facility is disposable. Sorry, New London, it's nothing personal.

That's pretty tough medicine for the New London officials who championed the city's version of a merger with Pfizer 10 years ago. It was all personal when these politicians waved away homeowners like pesky gnats, convinced they knew better.

It's a familiar scenario when small-time politicians are handed power and begin to take themselves more seriously than their constituents. The power of eminent domain is too heady for the hands of leaders with cold hearts.

It's no surprise that those same officials are so surprised now. So much of this story dopes down to folly born of hubris. But justice has come to New London. The city that showed no mercy to its little people has gotten a taste of its own medicine.