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Columbia University May Use Eminent Domain to Take Over a Harlem Neighborhood:

As this New York Times Magazine article explains, Columbia University may be planning to use eminent domain to acquire property from unwilling owners in a Harlem neighborhood where the University would like to build new facilities (hat tip to Propertyprof Blog). Like most private organizations, Columbia lacks the power to condemn property on its own. But university leaders seem confident that they can persuade New York City officials to condemn the property for them, perhaps due to the University's extensive political influence and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg's strong support for the unrestricted use of eminent domain.

The key facts:

Columbia's plans are ambitious: across a large swath of Upper Manhattan, the university wants to create an academic enclave that will both nurture intellectual progress and revitalize an urban area . . .

But in the eyes of many local residents, [Columbia's] optimistic rendering obscures the fact that to fulfill its vision, the university will have to bulldoze almost everything that's already there. About 1,600 people are currently employed in this part of Manhattanville, and some 400 live there . . .

Columbia has already purchased more than half the property it would need. But some owners have refused to sell, and Columbia says that eminent domain remains an option if negotiations fail. It's a dicey option, however. Throughout the country, public opposition to eminent domain has mounted since last summer, when the Supreme Court ruled that private property can be seized by local governments for private development. Virtually every state has considered changing its eminent-domain laws; at least 13 different bills on the subject have been introduced in Congress. As Justice Clarence Thomas noted in his dissent in the recent Kelo case, concerning New London, Conn., an expansive definition of "public use" in the 50's and 60's permitted local governments to eliminate entire minority neighborhoods through eminent domain in the name of "urban renewal" — soon known as "Negro removal" among blacks.

As the NYT article suggests, this potential condemnation is part of a longstanding pattern under which politically powerful interests have used eminent domain to acquire property at the expense of the politically weak. Poor blacks have been victimized especially often, and this pattern may repeat itself here. To avoid misunderstanding, I should emphasize that I do not believe that Columbia is targeting this area out of racism. If the identity of the residents mattered to Columbia, key variable was probably the relative political weakness of the people in the neighborhood, not their skin color. Nonetheless, eminent domain abuse need not be racist to be reprehensible.

An ironic aspect of Columbia's plan is the role of the University's President Lee Bollinger (also noted in the article). He became famous as a defender of affirmative action during his tenure as President of the University of Michigan at the time the Gratz and Grutter affirmative action cases were before the Supreme Court. Bollinger is now a major supporter of the the Columbia expansion and seems more than willing to use eminent domain to get the property the university wants, despite the fact that poor African-Americans would be the major victims. There may not be a direct contradiction between Bollinger's stance in Grutter and Gratz and his position now. But his current position should certainly increase skepticism about Bollinger's claims to be a defender of "diversity" and minority rights.

A few relevant facts that the article omits:

1. Even if Columbia does not actually resort to eminent domain but merely continues to threaten it, this could cause serious harm to the property owners. The mere threat of eminent domain will usually depress property values in the area, and often force owners to sell "voluntarily" in order to avoid the costs of prolonged litigation. Moreover, owners who do not sell quickly may face even greater price declines in the future if the government moves to condemn some of their neighbors' land. This is one of the reasons why a bright line rule against "development" condemnations is necessary. Even if it is unclear whether courts will uphold a given condemnation or not, the mere possibility that they might can be used to drive down property values and compel "voluntary" sales. Such pernicious dynamics are particularly severe if the property owners are poor and/or legally unsophisticated and therefore unable to bear the burden of fighting city hall for their land.

2. The article seems to accept at face value Columbia's claims that they can't carry out their expansion plans without resorting to eminent domain because of the danger of "holdouts." In reality, private developers - including major universities such as Harvard - routinely assemble large tracts of property without resorting to eminent domain. To prevent holdouts, they purchase the land secretly and only announce the building project after they have purchased what they need; in this way, potential holdouts never get a chance to stop the project in order to extort abnormally high payments for themselves. For a more detailed explanation of this admittedly complex issue, see my article here, pp. 21-28. While "holdout" problems sometimes do justify the use of eminent domain, it is far more common for this issue to be used as a dubious pretext for coercing property owners who are not holding out for a higher price but are genuinely unwilling to sell. This seems to be the case here.

3. New York state has some of the worst public use jurisprudence in the country. New York courts have allowed the use of condemnation for "economic development" purposes for decades (long before Kelo), and they are willing to endorse even the most blatant transfers of land for the benefit of private interests. In a 2001 case, for example, a New York appellate court upheld the condemnation of property in Times Square in order to allow the NY Times to build a new headquarters. The ostensible justification was that the area was "blighted" and that the condemnation would help alleviate the alleged blight. See In re W. 41st St. Realty v. N.Y. State Urban Dev. Corp., 744 N.Y.S.2d 121 (N.Y. App. Div. 2002). At least in the short term, Harlemites cannot expect courts to save them from Columbia's expansion plans.

On the other hand, major universities fear negative publicity to a far greater extent than most commercial developers do. Hopefully, there will be a big enough outcry to persuade President Bollinger and Columbia to reconsider their plans.

UPDATE: For those who may be interested, the NAACP's amicus brief supporting the property owners in Kelo contains a wealth of information on how eminent domain abuse has disproportionately victimized poor blacks over the last several decades - often even in the absence of racist motivation on the part of the state.

logicnazi (mail) (www):
Any (non reflexive/feel good) justification for affirmitive action is going to be based on the premise that a systematic inequality between the races causes great social harm (furthers racism, race based unfairness etc..) and thus a system which gives advantage to some minorities will not only aid these specific individuals but also make society generally better off.

In this case (columbia university) it seems that individual poor and minority individuals may suffer a hardship but I see no reason to believe that the children of those affected are going to be less likely to go to college or to attain high status. Thus it seems totally and perfectly consistant for this administrator to strongly support both.

In other words this administrator may very well feel in the case of affirmitive action one is trading off the welfare of the white students who might get admitted with the welfare of the minority students who would get admitted under affirmitive action. There is no prima facia reason why the welfare of people with one skin color matters more than the welfare of those with another but since he probably belives that admitting more minorities with help solve certain social ills it makes sense to implement affirmitive action. On the other hand in this case it is just a simple trade off between those who will benefit because of columbia's expansion (and he may believe this includes minorities) and those who own the homes.

The question of whether any of these views is justified by empirical evidence is a different matter but the two views this man holds don't seem to even suggest incompatibility.
6.2.2006 10:11pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
One more point

The only reason threats to exercisce emminent domain succeed in lowering property values is ineffectual oversight by the courts in ensuring fair compensation. If there was a system in place that fairly ensured the property owners actually got compensated for what the property would have been worth absent the threat of emminent domain then the threat of emminent domain would do nothing to lower the property value. The fact that prices fall in the face of government seizures is ironclad proof that people are not offered fair compensation.

In fact, I would favor a system which allows emminent domain takings in some situations like this (university campuses do bring a lot of benefits) but I think the government should be required to reimburse the owners a premium above market value. If the government had to pay landowners 150% of the fair market value of their property to take it for emminent domain it would both encourage the government not to abuse the privlege and make sure the landowners were not only fairly compensated for their property but also their inconveince.
6.2.2006 10:17pm
frankcross (mail):
A story from Texas.
UT is building a campus hotel and a local restaurant refused to sell property needed for a parking garage. UT murmured about eminent domain, and the property owner coincidentally had a relative in the state legislature who introduced a bill to block that. Presumably, the bill would have gone nowhere, but UT backed down and decided to spend more money and build the garage underground. Which supports the negative publicity hypothesis, perhaps.
6.2.2006 10:43pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
This is hilarious, Has the administration no memory? Have they forgotten the name of Grayson Kirk? It's totally weird. Of course maybe they are simply testing Marx' dictum about history repeating itself twice.

(For those too young to remember, it was Columbia's desire to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park which provided specific impetus to the Columbia riots of '68...at least so I remember. I was gone by then.)

And from an urban planning perspective, the desire to extend/create a "campus" is bad and not necessary. Columbia simply doesn't need eminent domain. It's expansion plans can proceed very nicely with only free-market transactions and lot-by-lot development. The imperative to create a large, discrete and isolated-from-the-urban-fabric "campus" should and may be the undoing of this plan.

David Sucher
Columbia College '67
6.2.2006 10:44pm
trotsky (mail):
One quibble with your analysis: Who ever owns the Manhattan property is almost by definition not "poor."
6.2.2006 11:21pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
How dare those evil Capitalists take land from the poor. Someone call Bill Clinton before he loses the office he never goes to.
6.2.2006 11:40pm
Tacitean (mail) (www):

One quibble with your analysis: Who ever owns the Manhattan property is almost by definition not "poor."


Perhaps not, but 400 people dolive there. Have you considered that they may be renters, and poor ones at that? The simple fact is, eminent domain is being used (or threatened) to displace residents for a private benefit, and that's ghastly.

As Prof. Somin says, the true pattern here isn't even rich-poor or white-black, but 'politically powerful interests' versus 'politically weak.' As I argued here, it can even be powerful corporations that are dealt with unfairly.

What's at issue, then, is whether or not we think a majority of voters in a jurisdiction (of any socio-economical-racial composition) should have the authority to take property from private citizens and give it to more favored private citizens. If we agree to that principle in any case, we have effectively agreed to it in every case.

So I think Somin - and other Volokh Conspirators - are right to continue to advocate for a stricter construction of eminent domain.
6.3.2006 12:05am
Christopher Cooke (mail):
You left out the most important fact: will there be a Starbucks in the new development? If so, then forge ahead, I say.
6.3.2006 12:09am
AppSocRes (mail):
Bollinger's positions on affirmative action at UofM and on eminent domain at Columbia are absolutely consistent and compatible with one another: Both serve to affirm that he is a member of the elite and can do whatever he wishes: An affirmation of his gravitas is most delectable when it visibly upsets and harms the less powerful because this subtly but powerfully manifests his special place in the social order.
6.3.2006 12:29am
Another Anonymous Coward:
Go tell the Supremes,
developers wanting to buy,
that here,
obedient to their laws we lie.


-Homeless Spartan
6.3.2006 12:38am
Harry Eagar (mail):
I remember that, too, David. My jaw dropped when I saw this post.

++++

While the owners of the property may not (or may, think Bedford-Stuyvesant where owners were forced by government idiocy to abandon their real property) be poor, the people who rent from them may be relatively poorly off. And the ones who will lose their jobs will soon be a lot poorer than they are now.

In logicnazi's world, there are no stakeholders, only owners. In Morningside Heights, it's different.
6.3.2006 2:31am
biu (mail):
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6.3.2006 5:44am
Tierce (mail):

the authority to take property from private citizens and give it to more favored private citizens.

It seems to me, and this is something that I believe Bollinger has pointed out, that there is a relevant distinction to be made between private commercial interests, and private non-profits with a public purpose. Unlike most commercial developers, Columbia can reasonably claim that its new campus will create larger public and social benefits (through research, etc), not just economic improvement (although it will do that as well).

A Current Columbia Student
6.3.2006 6:11am
Kiki (mail) (www):
I don't know why, but this issue really irritates me. May be I am not seeing the big picture, but the fact that Columbia can use imminent domain to expand its campus in Harlem just seems unfair to me. Why don't School officials just offer Harlem Residents money so that they can have the property? I just don't like the idea that a school can use its influence in this manner.
6.3.2006 7:59am
Bottomfish (mail):
Columbia might house its new facilities by simply purchasing individual pieces of land in the neighborhood without requiring them to occupy a single new campus. This alternative is obviously considered second-rate. But the supposed "larger economic and social benefits" generated by additional university facilities (mentioned by a previous poster) would appear to be equally likely even without concentrating all buildings in one area.

The NYTimes article describes the new campus as a combined mall and campus: "Along the main thoroughfare, the lower floors of the academic buildings will be mostly glass -- 'they will be floating' as [architect] Piano puts it -- filled with shops, restaurants and arts spaces serving the broader public of Harlem and the Upper West Side." But that sounds as if they were dispersing facilities through the neighborhood on individual pieces of land as previously described. It doesn't really seem like an improvement over the low-cost alternative.
6.3.2006 10:25am
Mark Hammond (mail):
First of all, I think Kelo is a bad decision. However, if we're going to allow takings by private developers I like the idea of making them pay a premium over market price. I would support this to some extent even for government takings, but I think the justification in the private sphere is much stronger. Would you sell your house for its fair market value right now? If you answered yes but have no plans to sell your house, then you are either (1) lying, or (2) stupid. The fact that someone does not sell their house is evidence that their subjective value in the house exceeds its actual FMV.
One of the main arguments for allowing private takings is that the land will be put to a better, more efficient use. If the person currently living in the house necessarily values the house at a price greater than the FMV, wouldn't it follow that a private developer who says they can get a greater use of the property should be willing to pay even more than the current owner's subjective value?
6.3.2006 10:44am
Tacitean (mail) (www):
Tierce,

I'm glad you brought up that point, because I think it shows the razor-thin distinction to be made between public benefit and public use.

Here's the passage from the NYTimes that I think is crucial.


Columbia's plans are ambitious: across a large swath of Upper Manhattan, the university wants to create an academic enclave that will both nurture intellectual progress and revitalize an urban area . . .


These are undoubtedly public benefits, but those benefits only redound to public use a few steps down the line (e.g., increased research leads to new drugs, which leads to greater overall health, etc), and even then it's not uniform across the board. The 'public use' standard, as I view it, means the immediate creation of a public good open to all. Here, I'm thinking the claiming of land for public schools, a town hall, a new roadway, or public recreation land.

No matter how well-meaning a private entity is - and I do not doubt Columbia's good intentions - the distribution of benefits is not as direct as strict 'public use.' One can easily think of scenarios in which Columbia's project goes through and the public goods fail to materialize as anticipated, whereas the building of a public road means an immediate public good.
6.3.2006 10:50am
David Sucher (mail) (www):
The plan as described in the NYT is not clear to me. On the one there is a reference to preserving the street grid and yet Bollinger says he needs the "entire space," 100% and that it must be ":serebe." That's the Robert Moses approach — not the Jane Jacobs' one.

The key notion is — as Bottomfish suggests — Columbia's perception that it needs a "campus" rather than simply more buildings. It's a question of how one thinks of a university. It's the imagery of "campus" which is the problem. I wrote about that here in reference to the Gates Foundation in Seattle:

Why call it a campus?

(And then follow the link to a Seattle Times article for more on the whole "campus" versus "urban" problem.)
6.3.2006 11:20am
Gill:
Logicnazi's spelling in his/her comment above is dismayingly bad. ("affirmitive" and "emminent," for example). And his/her posts are virtually incoherent (and appear to be internally inconsistent).

Why do people pretentiously claim adjectives like "logical" to describe themselves when they cannot even spell properly or reason coherently?

Logicnazi should spare us all his/her comments in the future.
6.3.2006 11:20am
SLS 1L:
I'm surprised nobody has brought up this passage from Justice Stevens' opinion in Kelo:
Two polar propositions are perfectly clear. On the one hand, it has long been accepted that the sovereign may not take the property of A for the sole purpose of transferring it to another private party B, even though A is paid just compensation. On the other hand, it is equally clear that a State may transfer property from one private party to another if future “use by the public” is the purpose of the taking; the condemnation of land for a railroad with common-carrier duties is a familiar example.
It's dicta, but could the constitutionality of such a taking be dubious?
6.3.2006 12:28pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
I think the key to Columbia's wanting all of the land, and not simply some more buildings, is the university's plans for a mall. Universities like shopping malls, as they generate considerable revenue for them and are exempt from local property taxes (often). Stanford, Cornell and many other universities own shopping malls. Columbia, apparently, just wants a piece of the mall action. So, I would oppose the use of eminent domain to give Columbia a shopping mall, if that is the motivating factor. Seems like a crass grab for revenues by an extremely wealthy land owner, at the expense of other, presumably less wealthy, land owners and their much less wealthy tenants.
6.3.2006 1:28pm
HLSbertarian (mail):
Tacitean said: "What's at issue, then, is whether or not we think a majority of voters in a jurisdiction (of any socio-economical-racial composition) should have the authority to take property from private citizens and give it to more favored private citizens. If we agree to that principle in any case, we have effectively agreed to it in every case."

Haven't we then been agreeing to it ever since the start of the income tax?


Kiki said: "...imminent domain..."

Probably inadvertent, but oh-so-appropriate.
6.3.2006 2:52pm
CEB:
HLSb said,

Kiki said: "...imminent domain..."

Probably inadvertent, but oh-so-appropriate.



And as the campus expands, will it be a matter of emanant domain?

Also, I'm a bit new to the eminent domain debate. Could someone briefly explain how the railroads acquired easements &how this is different?
6.3.2006 3:23pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Isn't it a bit cynical to talk about a university merely as a unit of political influence? Call me wide-eyed, but if New York condemns land for Columbia University, my first thought isn't that it must have resulted from some kind of back-room anti-democratic scam.

It seems you're assuming that our system is 100% broken and corrupt. I guess there's some safety in that, but isn't it a bit overboard? If there is such a thing as a public good, and if anybody is serving it, I'd think it would be an institution like Columbia. To deride that as mere "political influence," like we might say Exxon or Philip Morris peddles "political influence," seems to completely negate the distinction between purposes that are actually public and those that aren't.

As far as the land-owners, their lack of political influence may be true as a factual matter. Again, though, I see little to support that this is why they are targeted. Most likely, I would guess it is the under-developed property and low value that Columbia seeks, not people with little political influence. Of course, people with little money have little political influence, but I see no reason to think this is what Columbia wants, and in fact great reason to think they'd avoid it if they could.

The fact is that poor people are disproportionately harmed by life. A slightly increased chance of being subject to eminent domain is a pretty small example. When you're condemning land, it makes sense to take the least developed property, having nothing to do with political influence. I'd say we should try to fix the problems of poverty and the role of money in politics. I'm much less of a fan of libertarian arguments which turn these problems into founding assumptions.
6.3.2006 3:51pm
Federal Dog:
"If there is such a thing as a public good, and if anybody is serving it, I'd think it would be an institution like Columbia."


What a truly strange article of faith. Columbia, like other large corporations, is cut-throat.
6.3.2006 3:59pm
Vorn (mail):
Mark Hammond,

You made the point that an owner does not sell at current fair market value is evidence that their subjective value is greater than fair market value. I do not think this reflects reality in many instances.

Why? Many people are unaware of what the fair market value of their property is. Indeed, often, people make only crude calculations, assuming that the value of their property will likely to continue to increase, and they only investigate the fair market value of their property when they are planning to relocate for other reasons than receiving fair market value. Thus, it is a stretch to say anything about the subjective values of many people based on their passive inaction in not selling their property. Especially when the perceived opportunity cost of not selling today is extremely low, as property values tend to increase, rather than decrease.

Faced with a buyer who urgently wants to buy, the rational action is not to accept fair market value, but rather negotiate for something more. This is not based on our "subjective value" of the property in question, but rather our desire to get as much as possible.

Overall, I think your point that we can automatically infer something about people's subjective valuation concerning property based on their passive decision not to sell is deeply flawed. That you and many economists adopt this assumption rather unthinkingly is extremely interesting.

Though, of course, it is true by definition that people "value" a property by more than its price when people decide to buy. But only by definition. It should be noted that this "valuation" has very little to do with value per se, but is rather a product of groupthink, or rather, market prices (i.e. what everyone else is doing). That this is so is reflected by so-called real estate bubbles, such as we have seen in Tokyo, Japan (and elsewhere) before it burst. But in any case, if, by definitional fiat, we can say that a buyer "values" property for more than the price that is paid, we cannot say that about property that the owner who passively chooses not to sell, not being aware of how much his property has appreciated. Obviously.

It should be further noted that "subjective valuation" is really a function of groupthink, or if you prefer, the "objective valuation" of the market. Thus, self-righteous references to the individualistic nature of "subjective valuation" should be avoided. After all, if we were to divide any given valuation into objective (fair market value) and subjective parts (idiosyncratic individual valuations) it is quite clear that the objective dominates both in magnitude and importance.

Since the objective part dominates, eminent domain transfer of property to B from A is not a very significant. Very likely, A values the property nearly as much as (or more than) B does. (The "more than" scenario occuring when A is simply holding out to extract concessions that do not reflect subjective valuation). Now, if A is going to provide positive externalities to the community that are greater than B does, it is obvious that the use of eminent domain is a good thing.

That large projects making use of eminent domain will provide positive externalities is often most clear in urban areas, which often are not kept as safe as they should be by the individuals who currently own the property. As so-called "broken windows theory" demonstrates, when areas are not well-maintained, they encourage crime, violent and otherwise. (For details of the theory, including criticisms, see this Wikipedia article. I for one think that minimizing crime is a large positive externality.

In the case of Columbia, ownership by the university is likely to have large positive effects. Surely, the Columbia will provide superior security and keep the area in a better maintained state. This will likely result in a decrease in violent crime. Even if one thought that decreases in crime would be minimal, one must not forget that large positive externalities that research universities like Columbia provide. While a private univesity, Columbia is truly a national asset. Clearly, allowing eminent domain in this case is optimal from a utilitarian perspective.

Of course, libertarians only use the utilitarian rationales of economics when it suits their narrow purposes. I suppose that a libertarian might object that a transfer from A to B is not fair, despite the favorable utilitarian consequences. But then, since when do libertarians care about fairness? They should not invoke a principle they do not believe in. If I say to a libertarian that certain manifestations of income inequality are "unfair" they are likely to say that "life is not fair."

But I have a challenge for libertarians. Please justify your opposition to eminent domain without explicit or implicit reference to fairness. Alternatively, if you must resort to a fairness argument, explain why it is not hypocritical to resort to such an argument in the context of eminent domain while simultaneously rejecting fairness arguments in the context of income inequality.
6.3.2006 4:07pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Federal Dog,

Who isn't cut throat? I'm sure Columbia aggressively pursues its agenda, but isn't it at least a comparatively decent agenda? Once you trash universities as just as vile as anything else in society, I have to say, I think your cynicism has overtaken some of your perspective.

Gill,

I thought Logicnazi made a good point. I think most supporters would agree that affirmative action is an extremely broad endeavor, which isn't simply to help those minorities which it directly promotes. The ultimate goal relates more to the various things which are supposed to result from these promotions. Basically, giving better jobs/education to minorities is supposed to strengthen their communities and undo past discrimination, empowering them so future generations can compete equally without racial preferences. You want more black doctors not so much because you're trying to help those individuals, but because you want black children to see role models who are succeeding in that way, and then will choose to emulate them. In that way, affirmative action has only really succeeded once you're able to eliminate the programs, and minorities are still competing equally. Thus, it's less about simply promoting any minority wherever possible, but more about promoting minorities in specific ways that hopefully will have the most beneficial social impact. Additinally, as logicnazi pointed out, the ultimate benefit from this equality isn't just supposed to be to minorities, but to society as a whole.

Thus, as logicnazi pointed out, this doesn't necessarily mean that you'll want to immunize minorities from eminent domain, or scratch any project that might harm a minority, since the larger impact of this is going to be extremely small. Moreover, Prof. Somin's problem here isn't even so much that minorities are being harmed economically, but merely that their land is being taken against their will. That kind of thing is pretty far outside the scope of the grand scheme of affirmative action (you may notice I'm somewhat skeptical of this grand scheme).
6.3.2006 4:32pm
RobertMosesLives:
Keep in mind it was Robert Moses' use of NY's extremely flexible eminent domain laws that allowed him to seize literlly tens of millions of acres all across the Empire State, including most of what is now Lincoln Center and Fordham University at Lincoln Center.

According to Robert Caro's The Power Broker (. 741 and 1013 in the paperback version) Fordham in 1955 was looking to expand its Manhattan campus. Fr. McGinley who was President of Fordham pushed Moses: Fordham needed to expand in Manhattan but could not pay the real estate prices.

Moses used eminent domain as Slum Clearance Committee chair to jettison thousands of poor families and gave the property to Fordham almost as a gift (I believe it is a 99 year lease for 1 dollar or some such).

Fordham named their campus plaza for Robert Moses and there is a giant bas-relief of him on campus.

Everything old is new again.....
6.3.2006 5:47pm
Federal Dog:
Marcus--


"I'm sure Columbia aggressively pursues its agenda, but isn't it at least a comparatively decent agenda?"


Your question is properly addressed to the people at risk of losing their homes.
6.3.2006 6:49pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
For anyone obsessively interested, the University has a page here:
http://neighbors.columbia.edu/pages/manplanning/index.html

But it doesn't explain (so far as I could see) why it is compelled to use eminent domain as it already owns what looks like a significant majority of the properties and could realistically work around the hold-outs. (There is an ownership map - linked to in the middle of the page)

There is, however, almost one full block between 132nd and 133rd which is designated as owned by "other institutions."

Question: I assume that the state can condemn not only from private property owners but also from other non-profits?

I wonder if that is part of the story. The "other institutions." I wonder if it lessens the issue of use of condemnation and makes it into one of priortizing competing non-private uses.
6.3.2006 8:23pm
Mark F. (mail):
"But I have a challenge for libertarians. Please justify your opposition to eminent domain without explicit or implicit reference to fairness."

Eminant domain is coercive, immoral, aggressive and violates individual private property rights.
6.3.2006 8:30pm
Mark F. (mail):
"Clearly, allowing eminent domain in this case is optimal from a utilitarian perspective."

Utilitarianism is bunk. What formula do you use to determine the greatest good for the greatest number? 5,000 people get 5 units of happiness from some eminant domain action and 5,000 get 4.5 units of unhappiness, so therefore it's in the public good, or something like that?
6.3.2006 8:35pm
Pitman (mail) (www):
Not knowing much anything about eminent domain, I can comment on Manhattanville since I pass it almost every day. First, I am not sure what are the sources of the figures for the NYT's articles. When I originally read them I was a bit surprised at how many people are working in that area since much of it is car garages and storage facilities, where they bulk of the area employees may come from is the "other institution" which is a bus depot of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which the MTA is not so happy to give up. They have said that they are unwilling to give it up since there isn't space for another large bus depot in the area. From the map you can see that Columbia already owns almost all of the property in the area which they want to develop, and besides a building or two the bus depot may be their biggest problem. Almost every day I see posters calling on people to stop "Hurricane Columbia" and Columbia last year opened an employment office right near the corner of 125th St. and Broadway. I do not live in the area, but it isn't clear to me who really is protesting the development. A lot of the area has undergone numerous demographic changes during the past few years and I am not sure if it is the residents of the nearby housing projects who are opposing this. I'll try and keep VC updated with anything that I can get from the local news.
6.3.2006 10:52pm
Vorn (mail):
Mark F.

You have failed to give a non-fairness justification against the use of eminent domain.

You say it is "coercive" and "aggressive" but fail to explain why we should be concerned about coerciveness besides reasons having to do with fairness. After all, the protection of contract rights by the state can be rightly called "coercive" and "aggressive." However, in that context, some would say that coercion and aggression are fair.

Eminent domain ... "violates individual private property rights."

No it doesn't. Your property rights are defined by the state. By definition, your property rights do not include the right to be free from eminent domain. And anyway, is their a non-fairness reason to be concerned about the "violation" of private property rights??

Eminent domain is "immoral?" That is ridiculous. Since the state defines property rights, including limitations on those rights, one cannot say that a democratically legitimate decision by the state not to define the bundle of rights we call property in a particular manner most suited to your idiosyncratic preferences immoral. Obviously. I must say, it does take a certain amount of arrogance to equate ones personal preferences with morality.

I suppose a non-fairness rationale for opposing eminent domain (the one suggested by your unilateral labeling of eminent domain as "immoral") is simply "because I said so." While dicatorship doesn't depend on "fairness" it isn't based on any sort of reasoning either.

In any case, you have failed thus fair to explain why we should protect aside from concerns of fairness or your idiosyncratic personal preferences.
6.3.2006 11:51pm
Lydia (mail):
A few points that are missing in this discussion:

1. The justification for eminent domain rests upon the area in question being "blighted," or irretrievable by public means. This isn't true in the case of Manhattanville: the local community board has a 93-page plan for its redevelopment, involving parks, affordable housing, and help for local businesses. Columbia's presence is not the only way to revitalize this community.

2. Columbia is not planning on building a mall for its own profit. The stores would be independently owned. However, the University would make quite a bit of money off the patents generated by planned neuroscience research facilities. Still, I don't think the University is motivated by profit: the whole thing will cost $7 billion to build--$3 million more than the entire endowment.

3. "Fair value" is very difficult to determine when no one knows how much buildings in the neighborhood have sold for, and Columbia forces all sellers to sign non-disclosure agreements to keep the sale prices under wraps. No context. Essentially, Columbia sets the price it wants. Classic case of imperfect information.

All in all, the use of eminent domain isn't that likely. It's very politically charged, and Columbia can probably get what it wants without pissing off the community in that historic a way. There aren't that many people there, and the University has promised to relocate them all. At that point, it comes down to ideological commitment, which is hard to maintain in the face of cash.

-- A current Columbia student journalist
6.4.2006 12:38am
Mark F. (mail):
"You have failed to give a non-fairness justification against the use of eminent domain.

You say it is "coercive" and "aggressive" but fail to explain why we should be concerned about coerciveness besides reasons having to do with fairness. After all, the protection of contract rights by the state can be rightly called "coercive" and "aggressive." However, in that context, some would say that coercion and aggression are fair."

Well, frankly, I don't think civilized people obtain property by threatening to shoot other people. Do you? And I'm actually an anarchist who has problems with the state enforcement of contracts. A private, mutually agreed on mediator would be my preferred method to solve contractual disputes. But surely you must recognize a distinction between the initiation of force and the use of defensive force. Defensive force is fine with me. I view aggression as the threat of force or the initiation of force.

"Eminent domain ... "violates individual private property rights."

No it doesn't. Your property rights are defined by the state. By definition, your property rights do not include the right to be free from eminent domain. And anyway, is their a non-fairness reason to be concerned about the "violation" of private property rights? "

Oh, the state defines it that way, so it must be so. If the state defines black as white, then black must be white. I see. Are you familiar with the discussion of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence? This argument is pure legal positivism.

At any rate, I am familiar with the law of the United States of America. I actually think the Kelo decision was correct ~legally~, as I don't believe the 14th Amendment incorporates the Bill of Rights to the States.

"Eminent domain is "immoral?" That is ridiculous. Since the state defines property rights, including limitations on those rights, one cannot say that a democratically legitimate decision by the state not to define the bundle of rights we call property in a particular manner most suited to your idiosyncratic preferences immoral. Obviously. I must say, it does take a certain amount of arrogance to equate ones personal preferences with morality. "

Oh geepers creepers. The state says it's moral, so it must be moral. The majority voted for it, so it must be moral. Slavery was moral, I suppose, since it was legal at one time. Morality is the same as legality. That is stupid beyond belief. And morality is just a personal preference, huh? Yes, not wanting my head bashed in and my money stolen is merely a personal preference. The mafia just sees things in a different way than I do. Why can't we all get along?

"I suppose a non-fairness rationale for opposing eminent domain (the one suggested by your unilateral labeling of eminent domain as "immoral") is simply "because I said so." While dicatorship doesn't depend on "fairness" it isn't based on any sort of reasoning either."

Certainly dictatorship is based on some sort of reasoning. It's not good reasoning, but it is some sort of reasoning. Perhaps it's the Divine Right of Kings or maybe the belief that the masses are too stupid to run their own lives.

"In any case, you have failed thus fair to explain why we should protect aside from concerns of fairness or your idiosyncratic personal preferences."

My desire not to have my property stolen is not idiosyncratic. However, if you define concern over personal liberty as the same thing as "fairness," perhaps you are correct. I certainly reject the usual "utilitarian" reasoning for takings.

I see your philosphy as simply the might of the state makes right.
6.4.2006 3:24am
Mark F. (mail):
I'd like to comment that the burden of proof always lies with the person who favors taking land by eminent domain. Libertarians never have to prove why someone should be left alone to enjoy their property. That's as ridiculous as having to prove that I didn't commit some crime.

And let's be clear about something else. Property rights are human rights. Without the right to own your body and the fruits of your labor, we are back to barbarism. Civilization is private property, self-ownership, the rule of (proper) law and voluntary exchange.

Barbarism is an unlimited state, lack of property rights, lack of self-ownership, and disregard for natural rights.

Unfortunately for you government defenders, there is no compromise position between civilization and barbarism, anymore than there is a good compromise position on slavery.
6.4.2006 3:44am
johnt (mail):
Mark F, You're my kind of guy. Can't add anything to what you wrote except this; Collectivism is barbarism, as is it's euphemistically named relation,liberalism. You touch upon this indirectly.
Just as a savage wants and needs instant gratification so the collectivist uses his laughable and disposable principles for any goal and any means to achieve it. Contradiction is never a problem, truth, laws, and the lives of others are mere temporary impediments. Will is King.
6.4.2006 10:56am
Steve White (mail) (www):
In support of point #2 in the post, I'm on the faculty at a major Midwest university. We have a medical school and hospital, and the trustees of the latter have been buying land for over 20 years around the hospital for future expansion. The neighborhood was (not nearly as much now) 4, 6 and 8-flat brownstones, typically rented to students, nurses, etc. The University bought them out very quietly, full non-disclosure, no-talk, and in many cases rolled the properties into a management agency that continued to rent the units until it came time for expansion and the wrecking ball. In this way it acquired between 15 and 20 city blocks of land without any publicity whatsoever, and certainly no need to threaten eminent domain.

The administrators at Columbia have no imagination and apparently no skill. Pikers.
6.4.2006 6:51pm
Joe Socher (mail):
>While "holdout" problems sometimes do justify the use of eminent domain, it is far more common for this issue to be used as a dubious pretext for coercing property owners who are not holding out for a higher price but are genuinely unwilling to sell. This seems to be the case here.

why is holding out illegitimate??
6.4.2006 10:47pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
"why is holding out illegitimate?"

"Holding out" is a way of framing the issue so that people who don't want to sell for wahtever reason -- but let's stipulate it might be just a matter of dollars -- are characterized as mean or nasty or greedy.

"Holding out" not in the least illegitimate, of course. But even conservatives are sometimes relcutant to admit that it is OK to refuse to get -- heaven help us! -- the very last dollar from a sale or maybe even refuse to sell out of simple cussedness. Somehow even capitalists must be "nice" and public spirited and be willing to sell for the "greater good" at a "fair price."

So if your question is one designed to showup that bit of namby-pamby nanny-statism, I think it is a good one.
6.5.2006 1:00am
patch (mail) (www):
He who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morningside_Heights

This issue is similar to the one in 1968 that led to the infamous Columbia roits.
6.5.2006 11:58am
lee (mail):
As I recall, it was shown in 1968 that the Columbia University board of regents is a staggered self-relelecting board of real estate magnates. I don't think that's changed.
6.5.2006 12:45pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Columbia student journalist:

A little digging will solve your problem about establishing the value. I don't know NY law, but there's a conveyance tax and the amount is public. From that you can derive the last sale price.

Also, real property assessments are based on sales.

Might not work for that big bus lot, because of no comparables.
6.5.2006 1:57pm
Andrew Whitehead (mail):
Two notes:

First, Columbia's campus is significantly smaller than any university I can think of comparable stature. Surrounded as it is by residential and business properties, expansion of the campus is very very difficult - as is pretty much any large-scale development anywhere in New York City. In my opinion this is a significant problem for it. Columbia really does need more room to grow. Parking in the area is abominable, lab space for the sciences and engineering is very crowded and in need of upgrade, and student housing is tight. So from that perspective, I can fully understand the university's desire to expand its campus.

That said, Columbia has a long reputation as a miserable landlord and neighbor. Beyond the gym disaster of 1968, it has regularly fought with tenants and property owners in the area and further uptown over its policies and operations. Given this, I think it really behooves the university to do everything it can to reach a negotiated settlement that satisfies everyone. Waving the wand of "eminent domain" only re-confirms the suspicions so many people have of the university as a selfish behemoth trampling on its neighbors.
6.6.2006 12:19pm