Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Possibility of Eminent Domain Worries Manhattanville Residents

Possibility of Eminent Domain Worries Manhattanville Residents
By Maggie Astor

Bright orange brick reaches into the Manhattanville skyline, refusing to blend in. Though the business name painted on the wall reads "Tuck-It-Away," the building's owner does the opposite when expressing his thoughts about Columbia's expansion. It is one of only three properties preventing Columbia's full control of the campus footprint. But above "Tuck-It-Away" reads another message—"Stop Columbia! We Won't Be Pushed Out!"

Though the city approved the University's expansion plan, a major aspect of the project remains uncertain—whether the state will invoke eminent domain on the University's behalf.

Eminent domain is the process by which a state government can seize private property in the interest of the "public good." But the nature and proper use of eminent domain is notoriously ambiguous. "Nobody really knows exactly what the original understanding of this [eminent domain] was. The history is murky," Columbia Law School professor Thomas Merrill explained.
Oh, Who Owns New York?

Currently, Columbia controls approximately 70 percent of the land into which it seeks to expand. Public agencies—Con Edison and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority—own another 20 percent. Control of the remaining 10 percent hinges on whether Columbia can either strike deals with the resistant landowners or the state transfers land ownership to the University via eminent domain.

Columbia promised not to seek eminent domain for residential buildings, but is keeping it on the table for commercial properties if deals cannot be negotiated with landowners.

The University is also seeking eminent domain for a seven-story underground facility commonly referred to as the "underground bathtub" that would contain an MTA bus depot currently in the expansion area, an energy center, and a parking and loading facility. The space is owned by the city, and could be handed to Columbia only through eminent domain or the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a process which University officials said "doesn't allow the flexibility to go forward."

Some say a perceived threat of eminent domain may have been enough to compel landowners to strike deals with Columbia. "This use of eminent domain—of confiscating private property for private developers—has contributed to a scare tactic and campaign that makes Columbia almost invincible in that it will achieve its desire to grab any and every land it so desires," Harlem Tenants Council Director Nellie Bailey said.

"I felt apprehensive about eminent domain," Manhattanville restaurant owner Ramon Diaz said. But Diaz, who is finalizing negotiations with the University concerning his tapas bar, La Floridita, said a deal with Columbia would be a chance worth taking. "The thing with eminent domain is that you do walk away with something," he explained referring to "just compensation," which guarantees the displaced landowner full property value.

"We seek to acquire property in the area through transactions that benefit both the seller and Columbia University," Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin explained. "We have seen skeptics from the beginning [who] are now standing up and saying Columbia University bent over backwards to take care of our needs, and we look forward to consummating friendly transactions."

Experts say that because negotiation has always been Columbia's preferred strategy, it is highly unlikely eminent domain will be used to acquire the remaining properties. But for Columbia, Merrill said the final decision depends "on how much they have to pay to get these parcels without using eminent domain, It's a balancing process—the financial factors involved to deal with these holdouts."

The Blight Fight

The state can only invoke eminent domain if the area in question is deemed "blighted"—a designation used to describe an area as "underutilized," "substandard," or "unsanitary." In 2004, Columbia wanted to know whether Manhattanville was blighted and paid $300,000 to cover the costs of a study by the Empire State Development Corporation. The ESDC declined to predict a timetable for completion.

But many in the neighborhood already have their answer. Manhattanville "is not blighted. It's never been blighted. It's an industrial area," said former Community Board 9 Chair Jordi Reyes-Montblanc. "Any semblance of blight is strictly on the properties owned by Columbia University."

Because Columbia controls a majority of the Manhattanville land under scrutiny, critics blame the University for the neighborhood's condition. University officials dispute such claims. "Columbia has invested millions of dollars over the last several years to address life safety concerns of buildings it has acquired," Kasdin said.

Eminent Domain, Compare and Contrast

In two of the city's recent eminent domain cases, developers proposed replacing private properties at Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards and Queens' Willets Point with commercial real estate.
The state granted eminent domain for Atlantic Yards and is considering invocation for Willets Point. The Atlantic Yards decision, and apprehension about Willets Point, sparked a fury of opposition from local residents and community leaders who allege eminent-domain abuse.

Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner defended the construction by explaining that, although it would not be for public use, the project would be more economically beneficial than the existing properties. But since Columbia is a not-for-profit educational institution, its plans may arguably conform to the idea of "public good" more than for-profit development initiatives do.

"It is the expansion of an important University that educates the city, people from around the world frankly, and then does important research and science and technology and health care," Kasdin said. "That's the highest and best use of that [eminent domain], and that's a civic purpose."

Ester Fuchs, a professor of political science and former adviser to Mayor Bloomberg, echoed Kasdin's sentiment and explained that Manhattanville is "a completely different kind of project. You could probably justify E.D. in Columbia from a legal point of view more so than in the Atlantic Yards case."

Still, some community members say there is a difference between legal and right in the murky waters of eminent-domain policy. "Columbia is trying everything possible to avoid doing that [using eminent domain]. I don't know how successful they are going to be," Reyes-Montblanc said. "I hope they do not have to do it, because if they do, it is going to be a really ugly fight."

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