pageok
pageok
pageok
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.

Paul Milligan (mail):
And people wonder why we have to keep Nobama out of the White House ......
7.18.2008 12:30am
Grumpy Old Man (mail) (www):
Columbia, my alma mater. Pink on the surface, but the heart is black.
7.18.2008 12:30am
Grumpy Old Man (mail) (www):
Black malevolent, not black the minority group.
7.18.2008 12:30am
hawkins:

And people wonder why we have to keep Nobama out of the White House ......


Why, because the Kelo majority was all Democratic appointees run amok?
7.18.2008 12:37am
Columbia Alum '07:
An aerial photo that extends well into mid-Harlem is not grounds to write off Columbia/New York's claim of "blight." In fact, that picture might only cover a portion of the contested acreage, a truly disgusting, dilapidated and dangerous neighborhood. As one who had to walk through Manhattanville, the best thing Columbia could do as a "corporate citizen" is to tear down the area and build world class research facilities, simultaneously employing thousands of locals, reducing crime, building a public charter school, helping local businesses, and fighting the worst neurological diseases. If only CU President Lee Bollinger promises to adopt some orphaned Harlem puppies, this would truly be the greatest possible development project in the history of lower Harlem.


Roar, Lions, Roar
7.18.2008 12:42am
easy V (mail):
But I want Columbia to expand...

Agree with the last poster that that neighborhood is a craphole and NYC will be all the better for Columbia's improvements.

Funnily enough, this instance actually shows both sides to the ID debate pretty well - the city is better off with this development, but some individual property owners are probably going to suffer...nice that the post itself is so one-sided in not recognizing the social benefits to such a project, but then that's the advantage one has, I suppose, if one lives in an ivory tower.
7.18.2008 12:46am
Ilya Somin:
nice that the post itself is so one-sided in not recognizing the social benefits to such a project, but then that's the advantage one has, I suppose, if one lives in an ivory tower.

I discussed Columbia's claims of social betterment in earlier posts in this series. The bottom line is that such improvements as Columbia's project might make don't require the condemnation of unwilling property owners. Moreover, if Columbia's planned use of the unwilling owners' land were truly more valuable than the current uses, it should be able to buy the land without resorting to eminent domain. The fact that they don't want to sell is a strong indication that they value the land more than Columbia does.
7.18.2008 1:02am
Redlands (mail):
I guess approaching the property owners and attempting to just buy up the necessary property is out of the question? A matter of cost of course. The real blight is centered in Columbia's lack of integrity.
7.18.2008 1:49am
J. Aldridge:
Personally I have nothing against taking property from slumlords or those who hold properties for purely speculative purposes even for the benefit of 3rd parties.

However I would draw the line when it comes to private family farms, homes and businesses.
7.18.2008 2:05am
A. Zarkov (mail):
Unless things have changed since I worked in Harlem, the area east of Riverside Drive, west of Broadway, north of 129 St. and south of 133 St. is certainly blighted. Do a flyover with Google Maps. Note the area north of 132 St. is mostly a parking lot. Notice the area immediately to the east consists of 6 apartment complexes-- these buildings typify the notorious New York City "projects." You don't want to be anywhere near there as you are very likely to get attacked especially if you're white. If you look just south of 125 St you will see similar buildings. I once made the mistake walking through that complex and I got set upon by three young black hoodlums. Fortunately I was able to fight them off and they let me alone.

Good luck to Columbia.
7.18.2008 2:17am
Modus Ponens:
The photo linked to in your post features very little, if any, of the area labeled as "blighted."

The Columbia plan, depicted in this illustration, is largely concerned with the area west of Broadway between 125th and 133rd streets.

Take a Google Maps Street View Tour of the area concerned and see for yourself whether this area is "blighted."

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. The photo you've linked to, however, clearly misrepresents the area at issue.
7.18.2008 7:27am
M (mail):
I walk through this area fairly regularly as I live quite close to it (nearly St. Nicholas and 133rd.) I go through it to get to one of the best grocery stores around and the great Dinosaur BBQ (but don't go there- it's too crowded already.) Most of it is old industrial garbage and most of it can't really be seen from the photo Illya posts. That's not what I want to comment on, though, but rather Zarkov's false and at least slightly racist remarks about the housing projects near by. I walk through them all the time, both day and night. So does my wife, both with me and without me. Both of us are white and could hardly be called physically intimidating. Not only have neither of us ever been attacked but we've not been bothered there by anyone any more than anywhere else in New York, which is to say once in a great while but not at all often. It's a well-lit place that usually has people outside playing and enjoying themselves of all ages. I have no hesitation on going there at all. Unless you have a pathological fear of black people there's no reason to avoid it.
7.18.2008 8:20am
jvarisco (mail) (www):
Perhaps you should complain to the founders, after all they felt eminent domain was important enough to make the Constitution. Or the legislature, which decided to condemn the land. It's not like Columbia violated any laws here.

If Columbia could just buy it, they would have. But there are going to be a bunch of idiots who refuse to sell and sabotage the whole project for sentimental reasons I'm sure.
7.18.2008 9:50am
Pitman (mail) (www):
While in general I would agree with Ilya's criticism of the vague and often heavy-handed use of "blighted," I am not in total agreement with his statement,

"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."

The major hold out in this case is the owner of a storage facility which is the largest private-held property in the area (there is a municipal bus depot). It is on the west side of Broadway between 131st and 132nd street. On Google street view you can even see some anti-eminent domain banners hanging from the building. He is very wealthy and has a number of storage facilities around NYC, and has made clear that he is fighting this on principle, despite Columbia offering him money and a substitute location. He can legitimately fight Columbia, but it seems to be a case of lots of money and ego fighting lots of money and ego. One of the other holdouts recently settled for a few million dollars and another building which Columbia owns somewhere else in Harlem.

I pass by the area almost every day and it is not blighted. Garages aren't necessarily pleasant to look at, but the crime is nowhere near what it used to be. Besides the Dinosaur BBQ, a cafe/bar has opened up on 132nd St. and 12th Ave., but it will not be effected by the Columbia expansion. It is packed at night, even though it is literally right next to the West Side highway. Columbia last year opened up an employment office on the corner of 125th St. and Bdwy, clearly aimed at the local residents.

The neighborhood has changed tremendously over the years, and I personally think that Columbia's development will help the area, although whether the state should go around doing their bidding is another question.
7.18.2008 10:10am
Waldensian (mail):
Although your use of the word "covet" here isn't incorrect, I think its connotations give your analysis a tone that is a little overwrought. If you replace it with "desire" or "want," notice how much more measured your piece sounds. I realize this is a small point, and that it's like arguing about art, but just thought I would weigh in.
7.18.2008 11:04am
Richard Nieporent (mail):
Any Columbia alum knows the answer to your question. Just read the words of our fight song.

Oh, who owns New York?
Oh, who owns New York?
Oh, who owns New York the people say.
Why, we own New York!
Why, we own New York!
C-O-L-U-M-B-I-A!
7.18.2008 11:07am
mporcius@gmail.com (mail):
Zarkov, Pitman, and jvarisco,

People have private property rights, even "sentimental" people, egotistical rich people, and people who live or work where you got mugged one day. People even have private property rights when, by golly, you are sure, really really sure, that college professors would use their property better than they do.
7.18.2008 11:11am
easy V (mail):
"Moreover, if Columbia's planned use of the unwilling owners' land were truly more valuable than the current uses, it should be able to buy the land without resorting to eminent domain. Moreover, if Columbia's planned use of the unwilling owners' land were truly more valuable than the current uses, it should be able to buy the land without resorting to eminent domain."

How's that ivory tower working out for you?

If you want to take the strong property rights position and say 'screw the betterment of the community as a whole, the irrational, emotional, and stubborn get to have their property rights too', that's fine, but please don't throw that weak marginal use crap at me. I've worked in business and consulting for a long time, and to throw that out there as if nobody had ever thought of it before is a little condescending and insulting.

There is reason to doubt the judgment of the community, and certainly special interests will capture local governments from time to time such that the community as a whole will not be made better by a certain use of ID. However, that power exists because it is necessary, necessary for the same reason that we need pollution regulations and do not demand that companies just buy off the individual consent of everyone in any area where they want to operate.

Have you ever tried to do a major deal? Let's say get a proposal for some kind of improvement passed at your university? Did ya'll do it by majority vote, super-majority, or absolute consensus of everyone affected? I'm guessing that it's one of the first two, because if you demand the second for everything to go forward, you don't get anywhere. Placing that demand on civic improvment projects I'm sure seems find from whatever gentrified area you are writing from, but when you're trying to do real civic improvement, and when you're not esconced in some academic sinecure and so really have some skin in the game, it becomes a real impediment to ever getting a place off of the ground. I'm sure that the Times Square property owners preferred to keep their smut shops, but does anyone really think that we could have improved that neighborhood without getting those guys out of there, and at a price that did not entail them capturing all of the marginal value of the improvements?
7.18.2008 12:01pm
Per Son:
Across 110th Street, Columbia is taking land that it wants.

Across 110th Street . . .
7.18.2008 12:05pm
Snarky:
Your rejection of the idea that people will hold out for prices higher than their subjective value is silly. Of course people will do -- it is a gamble, but it is a potentially lucrative one. To say that they wouldn't do so is to say they wouldn't go to Las Vegas.

Also, what about irrationality? What about people who simply are not motivated by money, and do not want to see change? Should a lone holdout (who may be economically "irrational" or just think differently than most) be able to prevent the transformation and evolution of an entire community?
7.18.2008 1:03pm
Snarky:

How's that ivory tower working out for you?


I think this nicely summarized the problem with Somin's point of view. He has spent way too much time in academia and far too little time in the real world.
7.18.2008 1:06pm
Per Son:
A big problem with looking at things through a libertarian lens is that I have yet to meet a rational utility-maximizing individual.

Maybe we are rational utility-maximizers if you add everything we have done in our life, but so much more goes into why a house is sold. What about the old: "I ain't moving for no one." Many New Yorkers are unable to move. They own the property or are locked into great mortgages from long ago. To be forced out and told to find a new place - they would need to travel many, many miles to get the same. Often a pursuit not worth the headache.
7.18.2008 1:32pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
M:

"I walk through them all the time, both day and night. So does my wife, both with me and without me. Both of us are white and could hardly be called physically intimidating."


I was careful to state that things might have changed. Let me tell you that when I worked in that neighborhood no sane white person would ever have walked through that housing project at night. As I found out, even at mid day, the area was not safe, even on 125 St. The blocks on 125 St. between the subway station and the rail station were called the "gauntlet" in those days. Commuters walking between the two stations were subjected to harassment at a minimum. I can assure you it was not always safe. Obviously there is still problems. Just recently a Columbia journalism student was kidnapped in her own apartment building by a black ex-convict who raped, tortured, mutilated and then set her on fire. This crime is even more gruesome that any that I can remember. I hope for your sake that you're not in denial about the dangers you might face. I've seen it before.

BTW how long have you lived in NYC and in Harlem? I was born, raised, educated and worked there for a total of about 30 years. I knew a whole lot of Manhattan almost on a block by block basis. I can tell you that in some places it was safe to turn left coming out of a building but not right. I also knew a whole lot of people who were oblivious to the dangers they faced.
7.18.2008 1:38pm
Fat Man (mail):
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


When I lived in that area, which was a number of years ago it was so blighted that only the bold or the follish walked around much of it in broad daylight. It wasn't just blighted, it was mostly abandoned.

I would have more sympathy for the anti-Columbia people, if I did not know that they are all communists who hate private property, except when they can use it to stick a thumb in Columbia's eye.

Do you suppose that the anti-Columbia group would agree to ending all forms of rent control, if Columbia agrees not to condemn their property?

I know -- stupid question.
7.18.2008 1:57pm
Zed:
I wonder how Professor Somin feels about majority voting in corporate mergers. When corporation A makes an all cash/stock offer for all the shares of corporation B, can we have mere majority/supermajority approval for the complete buyout, or does the acquirer need unanimity to buy that very last B share?
Doesn't it make more sense for GE to be able to own 100% of RCA/NBC, and merge all assets, instead of paying millions for the last 1% holdouts of RCA shareholders?

The RCA/NBC shareholders of course impliedly consented to accept corporate laws that permit such forcible mergers. Likewise, the Manhattanville residents impliedly consented to live under the laws of the United States, which includes eminent domain.
7.18.2008 2:01pm
autolykos:

Have you ever tried to do a major deal? Let's say get a proposal for some kind of improvement passed at your university? Did ya'll do it by majority vote, super-majority, or absolute consensus of everyone affected? I'm guessing that it's one of the first two, because if you demand the second for everything to go forward, you don't get anywhere. Placing that demand on civic improvment projects I'm sure seems find from whatever gentrified area you are writing from, but when you're trying to do real civic improvement, and when you're not esconced in some academic sinecure and so really have some skin in the game, it becomes a real impediment to ever getting a place off of the ground. I'm sure that the Times Square property owners preferred to keep their smut shops, but does anyone really think that we could have improved that neighborhood without getting those guys out of there, and at a price that did not entail them capturing all of the marginal value of the improvements?


From the body of his scholarship and his posts on this site, I think it's pretty clear that he hasn't. His assumptions about rationality are like something you'd read in a freshman economics textbook, not something you'd learn in the business world. The idea that businesses should put millions of dollars into planning, development and site acquisition (or even that you can do site acquisition exclusively through the use of options) when a single stubborn retiree can torpedo their deal just doesn't have any basis in economic reality.
7.18.2008 2:01pm
Wpw (mail):
Actually that photo of Manhatanville is pretty depressing - I am constantly amazed to see how the average New Yorker lives or why people tolerate living in such a crowded, overpriced, dirty, crime-ridden city with overhyped "culture". Of course, I've spent my whole life living in prosperous big cities (Houston, San Diego, South Florida, Phoenix) where, because of better economic policies and abundant space, even people with modest means can live like kings compared to NY.
7.18.2008 2:15pm
Kazinski:
Since most of the 17 acres declared blighted already belong to Columbia, the state should take the property from Columbia using emminent domain and build sell it to Walmart for a Superstore.
7.18.2008 2:23pm
autolykos:

A big problem with looking at things through a libertarian lens is that I have yet to meet a rational utility-maximizing individual.

Maybe we are rational utility-maximizers if you add everything we have done in our life, but so much more goes into why a house is sold. What about the old: "I ain't moving for no one." Many New Yorkers are unable to move. They own the property or are locked into great mortgages from long ago. To be forced out and told to find a new place - they would need to travel many, many miles to get the same. Often a pursuit not worth the headache.


That doesn't mean people aren't rational, it just means that we can't conceptualize rationality through one narrow lens of how we expect people to act. It might be perfectly rational for the octogenarian retiree to refuse to move at any price. What is the 85 year-old who can barely walk going to do with hundreds of thousands of dollars? They just want to be left alone and that desire isn't necessarily irrational, but you can't assume there's a number you can offer them where they'll move.
7.18.2008 2:26pm
Wpw (mail):
"A big problem with looking at things through a libertarian lens is that I have yet to meet a rational utility-maximizing individual."

That's probably not true for the most part - you just have a naive conception of rationality. A rational actor just mean somebody who acts to rationally maximize their preferences as they are valued One person may value having lots of money, another person may value being totally impoverished and having multiple divorces. Rationality is about maximizing preferences as they're valued, not about the ends that are sought in and of themselves. A simple example of true irrationality would be a person valuing solely X and all their actions guarantee not getting X but getting Y instead.

While you probably haven't met a "perfect" utility maximizer, I promise you you've met people who are pretty damn close, unless you've been living under a rock.

The more fundamental problem of economics is that it seems to be incapable of falsification - it's really easy to make ad-hoc assumptions to explain away seemingly inconsistent observations by saying it's not the model's problem but people's preferences just arne't what you thought they were. Although experimental economics seems to uphold classic theory.
7.18.2008 2:36pm
David M (www):
The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 07/18/2008 A short recon of what's out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.
7.18.2008 2:41pm
SIG357:
It's fascinating to watch the liberals on this thread leap to the defense of the right of major corporations to get what they want via political influence.

The big financial beneficiary here will be Columbia University itself, which will get to add to it's already vast real-estate holdings in NYC, and at less than market value. I've seen Columbia described, with considerable accuracy, as a half-trillion dollar tax free hedge fund.

But as we see repeatedly, as long as your politics are "correct" the left will find all your actions blameless. Now, if Exxon or Haliburton were to try this ...
7.18.2008 3:17pm
SIG357:
Snarky

Your rejection of the idea that people will hold out for prices higher than their subjective value is silly.

By definition, people will sell for the subjective price, as they see it. Doing so is the whole basis of free market economics. I suspect that you meant that they will hold out for more than the "objective" price as set by the state. But the state is not supposed to be setting the costs of things.
7.18.2008 3:25pm
SIG357:
the city is better off with this development, but some individual property owners are probably going to suffer...nice that the post itself is so one-sided in not recognizing the social benefits to such a project, but then that's the advantage one has, I suppose, if one lives in an ivory tower.

I don't think that you know what the expression "living in an ivory tower" means. It's the people who see themselves as social engineers, making some people suffer "for the common good", who are the tower dwellers.
7.18.2008 3:32pm
M (mail):
Zarkov,
I've not lived in that area for too long but have regularly gone around 125th street for various things, including through the housing projects, for about 10 years. They have been reasonably safe for a long time. Given your history on this blog I'm more than willing to stick to the theory that you have an unreasonable fear of black people and that this colors your view of safety in different areas.
7.18.2008 3:57pm
autolykos:

The big financial beneficiary here will be Columbia University itself, which will get to add to it's already vast real-estate holdings in NYC, and at less than market value. I've seen Columbia described, with considerable accuracy, as a half-trillion dollar tax free hedge fund.


The question of whether parties who obtain land by eminent domain do so for less than fair value is separate from the question of whether eminent domain itself is proper. I don't know anyone who argues that eminent domain should be exercised without granting and fair value and to the extent parties seek to use eminent domain to condemn land without fair value, courts should limit their ability to do so (and such a taking would seem to be pretty clearly constitutionally impermissible). The risk that such takings will occur isn't great enough to make all takings suspect.
7.18.2008 4:02pm
RMartell (mail):
Fact: West Manhattanvile is not blighted. It is an industrial area and therefore the buildings were erected for function not esthetics.
Fact: Columbia Expansion will be a great benefit to WestSide (West) Harlem.
Fact: Columbia did negotiate and got most propreties before the publication of their expansion plan - but their plan made heavy handed use of the Eminent Domain provision and used it heavy-handedled to intimidated and cajole several property owners who operated businesses there to sell.
Fact: The major hold out has repeatedly said he would not negotiate under the threat of eminent doamian and in fact has offered a fairly reasonable deal to Columbia to swapt properties that would actaully make the new campus truly contigous. Columbia has not reacted.
Fact: Whether the hold out owner is rich or not has no bearing. People have the right to own property and to sell or not to sell as they may wish and that is a God given right or to you atheists a "natural right"
Fact: Columbia is NOT a Public Benefits organization but a very wealthy private institution, therefore the Eminent Domain application is WRONG!
Fact: most community members are decent law abiding, church going families some of whom are Black some of whom are White some of whom are English spoeaking and some Spanish Speakers and some French speakers no to mention the Chinese and Arabs that also live in this most Diverse part of Manhattan.
7.18.2008 4:14pm
SIG357:
The risk that such takings will occur isn't great enough to make all takings suspect.


If this taking is not suspect, can you give an example of one that would be? What criteria in general would you use?

If the state wants to "take" property to build new and needed infrastructure then that seems to be the sort of thing that eminent domain was concieved for. But I can think of a lot of takings which should not qualify. For instance, taking from Peter and giving to Paul with the expectation that Paul would provide the state with more money in the form of taxes strikes me as an illicit use of the takings clause.

(Given Columbias tax advantages it's quite possible that the state will see a net loss in revenue from transfering the property to it, but set that aside for now.)
7.18.2008 4:24pm
dll111:

Ilya Somin:
Moreover, if Columbia's planned use of the unwilling owners' land were truly more valuable than the current uses, it should be able to buy the land without resorting to eminent domain. The fact that they don't want to sell is a strong indication that they value the land more than Columbia does.


Doesn't the fact that Columbia can, and apparently will, use eminent domain to acquire the land change this calculus? If Columbia didn't have this option, perhaps they would offer significantly more for land, but since they can just use eminent domain to get it, that lowers the amount they're willing to offer for it in a private exchange.

So it's not necessarily true that since Columbia won't up their price, they don't want it as much as the current owners. At some point, it's simply economically more advantageous to accomplish the acquisition through eminent domain than it is to buy the owners out.
7.18.2008 4:42pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
M:

"I've not lived in that area for too long but have regularly gone around 125th street for various things,..."


So how can you tell me that my perceptions of danger are unreasonable during the time I worked in Harlem and lived in Manhattan? Moreover I had many friends who attended City College, which is near Manhattanville, and they had similar experiences. I can also tell you that at one time it was not safe to walk in Central Park north of 96th Street even in the daytime let alone at night. Morningside Park right near Columbia University was even worse. No one I knew would walk there even during the day.

If you want to get an idea of how dangerous an area is, talk to the doormen. I trust their opinion more than the police about a specific block.

If you think that my perceptions of inter-racial violence are inaccurate then read this mathematical analysis based on real data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Tell me specifically where the analysis goes wrong, otherwise your criticism is weak.
7.18.2008 5:12pm
autolykos:

If this taking is not suspect, can you give an example of one that would be? What criteria in general would you use?


Well, let's be clear, I'm not opining on the adequacy of the consideration in this case. I don't know enough to comment. I know there are cases where eminent domain (or simply the threat of eminent domain) is used to obtain property without paying fair consideration. I remember reading articles by acquisitions of forest land in Northern Minnesota by one of the various conservation agencies a couple years ago that fit this definition.
7.18.2008 5:28pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
The photo in the article Prof. Somin cites is misleading. Manhattanville is a reasonably large area, and Columbia plans to develop only a specific portion of it. The photo is of a different portion. That the area in the photo does not appear blighted says nothing about the area Columbia actually wants to develop.

The view in the photo is (approximately) to the east. Columbia's expansion zone is bounded on the east by a portion of Broadway with elevated subway tracks running down the middle. There are tall apartment buildings nearby on the other side of Broadway. Neither the subway nor the apartment buildings appear in this photo, which means that they -- and the expansion area -- are several blocks behind the photographer.

Actual photos of the expansion zone are available here. It's rather different from what the article portrays.

Prof. Somin claims that the area "is clearly not blighted", but he says this based upon a photo that doesn't show any of the actual expansion zone. I wonder if he will see things the same way after looking at photos of the correct area.
7.18.2008 6:02pm
Eric Elerath:
Were any licensed architects involved in determining whether or not the area is blighted? One wonders whether or not they could be sued for professional negligence by the property owners. For example, no standard of care exists for architects who make aesthetic decisions for the simple reason that no economic harm is seen to result from making a "wrong" aesthetic evaluation. If a property owner could show that economic harm *does* result from a specific aesthetic opinion made by an architect, perhaps the architects would retract their opinions. That may not alter the outcome, of course, but it would seem to remove some of the weight of authority that comes from having professionals involved in declaring "visual blight".

To reinforce the point, the property owners could hire their own architects to offer a professional opinion that the area is not blighted and that it "looks fine." What economic harm to Columbia would result from that?
7.18.2008 6:38pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
I appreciate Prof. Somin's update about my comment, but my point wasn't that the Gothamist photo "includes a larger area than the one Columbia wants to expand into". It was that the photo is of a different area. It's nearby, but it is very different in character from the area where Columbia plans to build.

Columbia is looking at a swath of land occupied almost entirely by light industry, storage, auto service shops, a bus depot and some fast food outlets. The area in the photo includes several good-sized apartment buildings. There are just a few apartment buildings in the Columbia expansion area; they are small and adjacent to one another, and their owner -- a government agency -- either is willing to sell them to the university or has already done so.

I recently watched "American Gangster" on DVD. A lot of the scenes that showed sketchy sections of NYC were filmed in the area where Columbia plans to build. It makes sense for filmmakers to use a neighborhood with many good locations so close to one another, but the fact that the area really does look like that supports a blight designation.
7.18.2008 10:00pm
easy V (mail):
Rereading the post updates, I think that Professor Somin's major premise is that: "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."

Once you accept this, his defense is not just of property rights as a right worth protecting - the way that we protect a lot of speech that, itself, is probably worth banning, because we know that giving the government the license to ban some speech will result in it trying to control speech that ought not be banned. Instead, it becomes an optimal scenario in itself, like arguing that the world really is better off for having Hustler Magazine.

I think that the premise is wrong, and I do not think that the evidence exists to support it. In particular, if we want to play around with a rationality calculus, consider if Columbia values the entire project at $100 million, it has say 90% of the land it needs, so the only thing standing between it and $100 million is 10% of the land, valued at $10 million. Meanwhile, the current owners at current uses value the entire parcel at $10 million, meaning that they value the portion still in their possession at $1 million (say it produces $100k in income for them a year, to make it easy).

Posit further that the owners are like some of the people on this blog and think that Columbia has more money than Croesus and so values the parcel at $200 million.

In this scenario, Columbia could be offering the owners $5 million dollars for the entire plot of land, a sum right in their optimal marginal use sweet spot, and the owners could feel that they are being jobbed. Columbia might even curse the holdouts and offer $9.9999 million, and the owner might still refuse, believing that Columbia will up its offer.

The above is an obvious example of a mutually-beneficial deal not getting done (and if you don't think that happens, call some of your friends in transactional practice and ask if a deal has ever broken down because of these sorts of miscalculations. Or look at the world of sports and figure out why each player and team is doing what he is doing - a system that overall displays a rationality, but which for any given deal shows a lot of poor judgment).

You do not need the above, though, to understand why the Professor's premise is wrong. Say, that the owner has perfect information, but that his valuation of his use is closer to Columbia's, say him at $6 million (producing $600k a year in income for him) and Columbia at $10 million. Say then that Columbia offers him $7 million for the property. He does the math and figures that his two options are 1) to hold out for an additional $2-2.999 million, in which case he risks losing out on the $1 million, but he figures that another buyer will come along one day, and that he is getting good money from the property in any case. Say, then, that Columbia sticks to its guns and figures the man will sell. Neither party budges, the deadlines and momentum pass, and bam, the guy does not get his money but walks away OK, Columbia does not get its property but walks away with 90% of what it needs, and the deal does not get done.

This is not simply a theoretical exercise - a lot of deals in the real world do not happen because of the bargaining strategies that parties choose. As an observer, you can accept this and say that we are willing to accept this sometimes and do not want the government to intervene - by giving the government the power to intervene in these cases, we figure, we give the government the power to intervene in many cases where we don't want it to intervene, so as we do with free speech, we say that that we're willing to accept some sub-optimal outcomes for the sake of the greater good. Fine.

However, it is unjust as an observer to try to create a justification for why these sub-optimal cases either do not exist or are really, really rare. It is like not acknowledging the harmful effects of pornography or really mean hate speech - it is fine to say that we have to tolerate these instances because the right at stake is that important. Please, though, do not trivialize the fact that these cases do exist by rolling out some academic BS about rational actors that, while generally a fair description of the world as a whole, is not an accurate way to describe every instance that a local government faces.

On a final point, to respond to a commenter above, no, I do not consider social engineers ivory tower inhabitants for the most part. The planners who have done the most to both help and harm our cities have usually been imminently practical men of grand, but often misguided, vision. A guy like Robert Moses may have had all the wrong ideas, but he had some street smarts.
7.19.2008 2:23am
Snarky:
I think it is fair that Somin has been pretty much owned in the comments.

Not that I would expect him to ever admit it.
7.19.2008 3:10am
Rich Rostrom (mail):
I took that Google Street View tour. I don't see any "blight" there. There are one or two somewhat run-down buildings, and a fair number of small commercial or light-industrial buildings that are not pretty anymore. But "blighted"?
7.20.2008 12:04am
Smokey:
easy V:
If you want to take the strong property rights position and say 'screw the betterment of the community as a whole, the irrational, emotional, and stubborn get to have their property rights too', that's fine, but please don't throw that weak marginal use crap at me.
The central problem with this attitude -- which is the attitude of all statists -- is that some bureaucrats pesumably know better than the market how to allocate goods.

Why don't you show us where that's worked in the past, big government guy?

'K Thx Bye.
7.20.2008 12:44am
easy V (mail):
Smokey - I think that I addressed this point in my second post. Namely, the strong property rights position follows your logic. We cannot trust the government with certain powers because, once we grant them to the government in instances where their use would be beneficial, the government will abuse those powers. I generally agree with this position.

I object to the Professor's use of, as i roughly put it, "weak marginal use crap", to insinuate that, one, in this particular instance, there is a strong indication that the use would not be beneficial, and two, that in general, where parties cannot come to a peaceful resolution there is a strong indication that its use would not have been beneficial. I think that this is incorrect.

I understand marginal use theory well, and I object to its use as a means of downplaying the cost that we pay to protect rights. In many individual instances, we will suffer by the protection of certain rights, though their protection on the whole is a good idea. We should not ignore the fact that, because of the exclusionary principle, many guilty and perhaps evil individuals have escaped justice, and we should not ignore the fact that, if one protects property rights vigilantly, many beneficial projects will not come to fruition.

Perhaps it is just that we protect both of these rights, but it is wrong to downplay the expense that we play for this protection.
7.20.2008 2:15am