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Thread: Eminent domain abuse by Columbia University?

  1. #1

    Eminent domain abuse by Columbia University?

    Here in NYC, if you take the 1 train past 125th Street and look to your left, you see a massive orange building. Most know it as a Self-Storage place. It's now got a big sign on it that says "Stop Columbia...Stop Eminent Domain Abuse. We won't be forced out!" Watching many parts of the city change quickly, generally at the hands of people like Bruce Ratner (the money behind the Atlantic Yards development), I wish I had more information. Maybe you fine folks can help me out!

    Specifically - is eminent domain really allowing organizations and/or developers to claim buildings that are owned outright by business? If so, is it to enlarge the tax base?

    If this is all true, (and I don't know the details), how is this in any way legal? Are the successful, albeit small businesses of my neighborhood next?

    Anyone familiar with eminent domain laws and how they work in urban settings -- I'd appreciate enlightenment!



    -J

  2. #2
    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    I would start by becoming familiar with the Kelo decision from the US Supreme Court last year.

    Here is a link:

    http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/04-108.ZS.html
    "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less" General Eric Shinseki

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    I don't know about eminent domain, JayEM, but Columbia University owns a lot of property in upper Manhattan, much of it not used for educational purposes. Back in the '80s, I subleased an apartment in a (roach-infested, poorly maintained) Columbia-owned tenement for the summer.

    It's possible that Columbia, through its abundant $$$ resources, has been buying property legitimately and displacing the existing tenants (including small business owners), leading to the perception that they are using eminent domain... but I admit, I am not familiar with the details.

  4. #4
    Explaining eminent domain takes a book more than a forum like this, but here's a quick tutorial to get you started.

    Eminent domain is the power granted to governments via the constitution to acquire private property with due compensation for a public use or benefit. (Some private utilities also have eminent domain power as well.) Until Berman v. Parker, the Supreme Court had held that government could not simply transfer private property from one private interest to another -- there had to be some public use of the property involved. Berman involved the redevelopment of a blighted section of Washington DC and the Court upheld that while Berman's property was not blighted, per se, the redevelopment plan provided a public benefit by eliminating blighting influences.

    The most recent case dealing with eminent domain is Kelo v. New London where a divided court ruled that a redevelopment project would provide a public benefit even though the government would transfer the property it condemned from one private owner to a different private owner because the economically depressed city of New London would see a benefit in its tax base as a result. Former Justice O'Connor wrote a blistering dissent in which she excoriated Justice Kennedy who observed that state legislatures could tighten the use of eminent domain as opposed to the Court -- Justice O'Connor believing it was the Court's duty to do so. (It turns out that that is exactly what happened, for better or for worse.)

    I'm not familiar with the case you mention but would wonder whether Columbia University, which I believe is private, has the power of eminent domain. If not, then it must be acting with a department of local government -- you should be able to find out more there.

    Again, eminent domain is way too complicated to boil down to a few paragraphs, but this ought to give you a start. Good luck.
    Je suis Charlie

  5. #5
    Cyburbian
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    This particular expansion planned by Columbia U. has been very contoversial. The university owns lots of property in the area, but has to buy the rest and some owners are refusing to sell. Columbia itself doesn't have eminent domain powers, but it might be able to convince the city to use theirs. If you do a google or lexus-nexus search, you should be able to find several accounts of the project in the press.

    The main problem is the perception that the University doesn't care who they displace as long as they can build their campus. This may be true. Their public outreach has been cursory and incompetent, and they don't seem to be especially willing to seriously address the concerns of the community.

    Affordable housing is a problem, due to anticipated gentrification. Also troubling is that the Columbia plan calls for de-mapping public streets into private ones. Although the public will technically have access, the university will own the streets in the redevelopment area.

  6. #6
    Thanks for the replies, guys.

    From what I understand, "eminent domain" in cases like this and Atlantic Yards refers to a private organization (Columbia) using the City to acquire buildings from private owners (the Self-Storage place) and then developing them for their interest. I know Columbia does not own this building; hence the 50-foot tall charge of "eminent domain abuse."

    I'll read up on the Kelo decision, the O'Connor dissent with vigor. It's interesting that the Berman case referenced Washington, DC; neighborhoods like Columbia Heights are now almost unrecognizable, with whole blocks of buildings, small businesses (laundromat, dollar store, Waffle House) presumably bought out and, I guess, moved to PG county where they can afford it.

    Here in Brooklyn, I also know that the Atlantic Yards project uses eminent domain as well. Though the project is privately developed, it will receive City and State funds, and I suppose, improve the tax base.

    The logic for Atlantic Yards' morality stems from ACORN's support for it -- they say it will not only include hundreds of units of affordable housing, but that it will create service and other sector jobs for tenants. It's similar to the arguments made about the existing development in the area (Atlantic Terminal, etc) which brought Target, Burlington Coat Factory, and Old Navy to Atlantic Avenue.

    The unsubtle flaw seems to me that while a block of buildings with a bunch of different owners and economic competition within its block (the bodega vs. the beauty salon) supports small business owners who live above or nearby, a block of buildings owned by Bruce Ratner can only support people who work for large corporations like Target; effectively shutting down an ability to successfully start a small, modestly profitable business which has been in place here in the City for a long time and is partially responsible for what the tourism bureau calls "flavor."

    One cannot deny that the City would probably make more money from an extension of Columbia's campus than a giant orange Self-Storage warehouse. The current powers grant abilities to the City which are too beneficial to private interests, in my opinion. The City is not a corporation, and nor should it adopt policies which turn it into one.

    Thanks everybody!

    J

  7. #7
    Cyburbian
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    University expansion is inevitable, but implemented in a variety of ways.

    Major urban universities like Columbia need space to grow, add students, offer more courses, build new science labs, justified by the demands of the modern American educational arms race. These universities formulate a fairly compelling economic development rationale. When comparing the economic impacts of a major research institution with the impacts of small businesses, there is a clear winner. However, the two impacts are not mutually exclusive, being a good example of export and neighborhood economies working together in a mutually beneficial way that ripples throughout the economy.

    As for whether Columbia administration is trying to manipulate the city to use eminent domain, the city would be foolish to do so. I don't know the local statute governing eminent domain, but they often only allow cities to take land because of blighted conditions, which is when the lack of ongoing private investment has led to the physical deterioration of the property, visible abandonment, and/or hazardous conditions (bricks falling on people's heads). Though there may be shabby looking places in Manhattan, the current market values land so highly value real estate that any effort to label something blighted is somewhat specious. However, if all a city needs is an economic development rationale, then the definition becomes murky, hence all the brew-hah-hah.

    Columbia's space expansion could offer benefits to the community through multiple channels if Columbia is completely ambivalent to neighborhood concerns. Check out this article for one institutional response...

    http://www.citylimits.org/content/ar...rticle_id=3223

    Two other major urban universities undergoing constant expansion, keeping many, many planners busy...

    http://www.facilities.upenn.edu/whatsNew/campusdev.php3
    http://www.allston.harvard.edu/

  8. #8
    Quote Originally posted by RatchetyPlan View post

    Columbia's space expansion could offer benefits to the community through multiple channels if Columbia is completely ambivalent to neighborhood concerns.

    http://www.citylimits.org/content/ar...rticle_id=3223
    Thanks for replying.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "completely ambivalent," but the article offers that negotiation should take place between Columbia and a special organization which also includes a community board; so benefits could be negotiated if Columbia works with the neighborhood.

    I don't buy it, personally. The neighborhood clearly doesn't want to sell, and clearly feels pressured to do so. The article doesn't mention one benefit the community might receive, but instead presents the not-quite-visionary thesis that compromise could help. An organization of small business owners, residents, and CB9 like the article mentions, I'm willing to bet, would be more apt to present arguments against selling their buildings and moving out of the neighborhood.

    I also wonder why urban universities, rather than expand outward, don't expand up. The New School is planning to raze a building at 65 Fifth Ave and replace it with a larger one in order to keep up in the "arms race." This seems to me to reflect the New School's sense of social responsibility.

    That's what this comes down to for me. I think it's socially irresponsible to participate in the uprooting of small businesses, especially under the moral cover that "we negotiated a contract with the community board."

    Anyway, I'll continue to research this big orange building. Thanks.

    J

  9. #9
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by JayEM View post

    I also wonder why urban universities, rather than expand outward, don't expand up. The New School is planning to raze a building at 65 Fifth Ave and replace it with a larger one in order to keep up in the "arms race." This seems to me to reflect the New School's sense of social responsibility.



    J
    slightly off topic: The New School does not have the deep pockets of Columbia, and probably doesn't have many options when it comes to expansion.

    The way I see it, Columbia could have had more support in the neighborhood if they hadn't acted like a*%holes and snubbed the community in the first place. There still would have been opposition, but not like this. Columbia has taken a position that the area is blighted, partly by allowing its own property to become run-down, and partly by characterizing the area as a vacant wasteland. They even call the area "Manhattanville" while it has been know in recent decades as part of Harlem.

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