From the edge of the Thames River in New London, Conn., Michael Cristofaro surveyed the empty acres where his parents’ neighborhood had stood, before it became the crux of an epic battle over eminent domain.
“Look what they did,” Cristofaro said Thursday. “They stole our home for economic development. It was all for Pfizer, and now they get up and walk away.”
That sentiment has been echoing around New London since Monday, when Pfizer, the giant drug company, announced it would leave the city just eight years after its arrival led to a debate about urban redevelopment that rumbled through the U.S. Supreme Court, and reset the boundaries for governments to seize private land for commercial use.
Pfizer said it would pull 1,400 jobs out of New London within two years and move most of them a few miles away to a campus it owns in Groton, Conn., as a cost-cutting measure. It would leave behind the city’s biggest office complex and an adjacent swath of barren land that was cleared of dozens of homes to make room for a hotel, stores and condominiums that were never built.
The announcement stirred up resentment and bitterness among some local residents. They see Pfizer as a corporate carpetbagger that took public money, in the form of big tax breaks, and now wants to run.
“I’m not surprised that they’re gone,” said Susette Kelo, who moved to Groton from New London after the city took her home near Pfizer’s property. “They didn’t get what they wanted: their development, their big plan.”
Kelo lived in a small pink house in the Fort Trumbull section that was square in the sights of city and state officials who wanted to revitalize the area. The city had created the New London Development Corp. to buy up the nine-acre neighborhood and find a developer to replace it with an “urban village” that would draw shoppers and tourists to the area.
Economic development officials in Connecticut used that plan — and a package of financial incentives — to lure Pfizer to build a headquarters for its research division on 26 acres nearby. With an agreement that it would pay just one-fifth of its property taxes for the first 10 years, Pfizer spent $294 million on a 750,000-square-foot complex that opened in 2001.
By then, Kelo, the Cristofaros and several neighbors had sued the city to stop it from using its power of eminent domain to take their property. The dispute, known as Kelo v. New London, wound up at the Supreme Court in 2005 as one of the most scrutinized property-rights cases in years.
In a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled that it was permissible to take private property and turn it over to developers as part of a plan to bolster the local economy. Conservative justices, including Clarence Thomas, dissented. Thomas called New London’s plan “a costly urban-renewal project whose stated purpose is a vague promise of new jobs and increased tax revenue, but which is also suspiciously agreeable to the Pfizer Corporation.”
The decision was widely criticized, and spurred lawmakers across the country to adopt statutes to prevent similar uses of eminent domain.