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Columbia University Continues to Threaten to Use Eminent Domain to Expand into a Nearby Harlem Neighborhood:

Last year, I blogged about Columbia University's threats to use eminent domain to take over some land it covets in a the nearby Manhattanville neighborhood of Harlem. According to this New York Post article by urban development specialist Julia Vitullo-Martin (hat tip Candace de Russy), the University is continuing its threats:

The expansion of Columbia, already the city's seventh largest private employer, would add another 6,900 premium jobs - high pay, with generous benefits and pensions - to the local economy.

And the 17 acres on which the school hopes to build (bordered by 125th and 133rd streets, and by Broadway and Riverside Drive) are largely underused relative to the rest of Manhattan.

The sticking point is plainly Columbia's demand to get it all. Luisa Henriquez, who lives in a city-owned building on 132nd Street, puts it this way: "Columbia moving in is a bad thing because Columbia isn't willing to share."

"We're not going to take [eminent domain] off the table," says Columbia Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin. "We're going to preserve our right to argue to the state that it's in the public interest that they do it."

Yet even the strongest Harlem supporters of the Manhattanville plan, like realtor Willie Kathryn Suggs, balk. "I don't want them invoking eminent domain for private use. It's not right," says Suggs. "The neighborhood will get safer streets and better restaurants. I want that to happen. But under the rules. If they want more property they should buy it fairly, like anyone else."

And the opponents are ferocious. Manhattanville's largest private property owner, Nick Sprayregen, President of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage, says that Columbia wants four of his five buildings . . . "My father built this business, which I intend to hand onto my children," he says. "We worked hard for the neighborhood, and intend to be part of its success.

"I won't move," Sprayregen insists. "But Columbia wants it all - 100 percent of everything. They have no desire for nuance, for compromise, for diversity."

The article notes that Columbia plans to argue that the area in question is "blighted." Under New York law eminent domain law, which is perhaps the most hostile to property rights of any in the country, almost any area can be declared blighted - and thereby subject to condemnation - no matter what its condition. As I noted in my original post, just a few years ago a New York appellate court held that Times Square was blighted, thereby permitting the condemnation of some property there for transfer to the New York Times for the purpose of building a new headquarters for the New York Times. Unfortunately, the use of blight standards broad enough to cover virtually any property is far from unique to New York, as I explained in more detail in this August 2006 Legal Times article. The retention of broadly defined blight statutes also undermines many of the reform laws enacted in the wake of Kelo v. City of New London (See my paper on post-Kelo reform, pp. 15-21).

Three other aspects of the Columbia/Harlem situation are symptomatic of broader flaws in eminent domain policy. First, this is just one of many cases where the power of eminent domain is used by wealthy and politically influential interests (in this case Columbia), at the expense of the poor and politically weak (here, the mostly poor and minority residents of Manhattanville). Second, as Columbia's lawyers surely know, even the mere threat of eminent domain often enables powerful interest groups to acquire land at a lower price than the owner would be willing to accept on the open market. For this reason, the misuse of eminent domain for the benefit of powerful interest groups is far more common than we might think if we focus only on takings that are actually carried out. Finally, like many would-be beneficiaries of eminent domain, Columbia claims that it needs to acquire 100% of the area in question and that eminent domain may be the only way to do so. Both claims are dubious, especially the latter. As I explain in some detail in this forthcoming article (pp. 21-29), there are numerous private sector alternatives to condemnation in cases where a developer seeks to acquire land for uses that really are more valuable than those of the present owners.

Perhaps Columbia's planned expansion really would benefit the local economy more than the present uses of the land in question. If so, it is highly likely that those benefits could be achieved without resorting to condemnation or using the threat of eminent domain to intimidate property owners into selling at a low price. And we should also keep in mind the fact that many "blight" and economic development condemnations actually damage local economies far more than they benefit them, as happened in the notorious 1981 Poletown condemnations, and also in Kelo v. City of New London (where some $80 million in public funds has been spent on a development project for little or no return). Once Columbia takes over the condemned land, it will not be under any legal obligation to actually provide the 6900 new jobs and other economic benefits that it is currently touting. As in many previous such cases, the new owner of condemned land could decide that providing the benefits it promised is not in its interest.

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