New York City Declares Neighborhood "Blighted" so that Property Coveted by Columbia University Can be Condemned:

The New York Times reports that Columbia University has succeeded in its efforts to get New York City to declare a portion of Manhattanville "blighted" so that the area can potentially be condemned and transferred to the university in order to facilitate its expansion plans [HT: VC reader Michael Pitkowsky]. Once an area is declared blighted, all the property there can be condemned by the government at any time, for as long as the blight designation lasts (which can be many decades). I have previously criticized Columbia's efforts to use the threat of eminent domain to acquire this property (see here for the most recent post and links to earlier ones).

Although the Manhattanville area isn't one of New York City's most prosperous, it is clearly not blighted in the layperson's sense of the term (see here for a photo). Such blight as might exist on the area is actually on property already owned by Columbia, and thus within the University's power to alleviate without acquiring additional land. However, New York law, like that of many other states, defines "blight" so broadly that almost any neighborhood can be declared blighted and then taken by eminent domain and transferred to politically influential interest groups. Obviously, Columbia University has a lot of political clout in New York. As the Times article suggests, it is probably no accident that the firm that conducted the official study that found the area to be blighted also does consulting work for the University itself.

Unfortunately, this situation is just one small example of the much broader problem of the use of expansive definitions of "blight" to facilitate condemnation of property coveted by the politically powerful. As a result of the backlash against the Supreme Court's decision in Kelo v. City of New London, some 42 states have enacted laws that purport to limit takings. However, as I explain in this article (pp. 17-24), at least 16 of these new laws still define blight so broadly that virtually any property can be declared "blighted" and condemned.

New York is one of the eight states that has not passed any eminent domain reform legislation at all since Kelo, although new governor David Paterson has said that such legislation is needed. So far, however, Paterson hasn't done much on the issue since becoming governor earlier this year.

UPDATE: I criticized Columbia's arguments that the use of eminent domain in this cae will benefit the city in my original 2006 post on this issue. The bottom line is that if Columbia's planned uses for the property are truly more valuable than those of the current owners, the University should be able to get them to sell voluntarily. Indeed, their refusal to do so is a strong sign that they value the property more than Columbia does. For a more detailed exposition of the reasons why genuinely beneficial private development projects rarely if ever need to use eminent domain, see Part I of my 2007 Supreme Court Economic Review article, and this excellent article by Daniel Kelly.

UPDATE #2: Commenter Edward Hoffman points out that the photo linked in the original post includes a larger area than the one Columbia wants to expand into and notes that Columbia University's own website on the project contains more narrowly focused photos. Having actually been to this area, I think that Columbia has picked some of the least attractive buildings in the area to feature in its website (which, after all, is intended to defend its project). But even these far from flattering pictures don't prove the existence of blight in the lay sense of the term: severe dilapidation, threats to public health, and the like. What they show is a neighborhood with some esthetically unattractive buildings and infrastructure.