Property Rights

New York Court Puts A Stop to Columbia University's Eminent Domain Abuse


New York's Supreme Court Appellate Division (First Department) handed down a massive victory for property rights yesterday in the case of Kaur v. New York State Urban Development Corporation. At issue was the state's highly controversial use of eminent domain on behalf of Columbia University, which wants free rein over the West Harlem neighborhood of Manhattanville, where it plans to build a fancy new research campus.

As I discussed in an article last February, there is overwhelming evidence that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) actively colluded with Columbia in order to produce the very conditions that would then allow ESDC to seize property on the university's behalf. At the time of ESDC's 2006 blight study, for instance, Columbia owned 76 percent of the neighborhood and was thus directly responsible for the overwhelming majority of blight that the report alleged, ranging from overflowing basement trash heaps to major roof and skylight leaks. As numerous tenants have reported, the university refused to perform basic and necessary repairs, which both pushed tenants out and manufactured the ugly conditions that later advanced Columbia's long-term interests. Preliminary findings delivered to the ESDC admitted as much, noting "Open violations in CU Buildings" and "History of CU repairs to properties" among the "issues of concern."

Thankfully, the New York court recognized this shameful mess for what it is: eminent domain abuse. As Justice James Catterson wrote for the majority:

the blight designation in the instant case is mere sophistry. It was utilized by ESDC years after the scheme was hatched to justify the employment of eminent domain but this project has always primarily concerned a massive capital project for Columbia. Indeed, it is nothing more than economic redevelopment wearing a different face.

As the decision notes, ESDC's blight study was "biased in Columbia's favor," yet "even a cursory examination of the study reveals the idiocy of considering things like unpainted block walls or loose awning supports as evidence of a blighted neighborhood. Virtually every neighborhood in the five boroughs will yield similar instances of disrepair that can be captured in close-up technicolor."

Finally, as for ESDC's catch-all claim that the holdout Manhattanville properties were being "underutilized" by their owners, a harsh rebuke:

The time has come to categorically reject eminent domain takings solely based on underutilization. This concept put forward by the respondent transforms the purpose of blight removal from the elimination of harmful social and economic conditions in a specific area to a policy affirmatively requiring the ultimate commercial development of all property regardless of the character of the community subject to such urban renewal.

Of course, New York's highest court just permitted a very similar case of eminent domain abuse in favor of Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, so it's not yet clear how these two cases will be reconciled. But according to Matthew Brinckerhoff, the lead counsel for the property owners in the Atlantic Yards case, their fight isn't over:

As Justice Catterson rightly observed the Empire State Development Corporation's abusive practices are the height of "idiocy." In the next few days, we will file a motion asking the Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling in our case, based on this new indictment of the agency's standard operating procedure. We know that the Court of Appeals will now review the Columbia University ruling, and we are optimistic that the abuse of power detailed in Justice Catterson's powerful opinion, combined with the agency's similar conduct in the Atlantic Yards case will cause a few of the Judges who already expressed skepticism to reconsider their decision. This will give us a rare second bite at the apple. We will not waste it.

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  1. If I owned the Nets, I’d be concerned right now.

  2. Good news on this front for once. It’s an added bonus that it’s the prominent Columbia U. that’s getting called out for this garbage extortion tactic they tried to pull.

  3. There’s no such thing as eminent domain abuse. Forcing people out of their homes against their will is a crime in and of itself. It’s nonsense to talk about eminent domain abuse, because to do so clearly implies that it could be done non-abusively. Non-abusive abuse!

  4. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper in the long run for CU to just buy all the property from residents and then build their research campus without a fight? The chance of losing a battle like this is not worth the risk in my opinion.

    Not to mention how douchey it is.

    1. If Columbia owns 76% of the property, and it has purchased that over several years, then they’ve certainly taken a hit on their investment. Now they can’t push out the remaining 24% and if they sell the 76% they’ll do so at a loss.

      1. Not only did they own a considerable amount of the property, but they were negligent landlords it seems. If they had just kept it in good shape and increased it’s value to the point where residents could no longer afford it…and take no new customers, they probably could have won the whole damn neighborhood that way. Oh what a tangled web we weave…and junk.

    2. Suspect that the residents of this area are mostly tenants of, not owners of, their dwellings. I think that NYC has rent control laws which would have prevented CU from outright evicting them.

      Anyone know if NYC rent control laws would have prevented CU from waiting for leases to expire, then demolishing buildings?

      1. The lack of creativity in getting people to leave without blighting their own property is amazing. They’re called incentives people! They often work as intended.

      2. Yeah, most residents there are almost certainly renters. I can’t see how our rent control laws (byzantine as they are) would prevent CU from refusing to renew people’s leases, but then again it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s some provision of NYC law that states that a renter must be given the opportunity to renew a lease. Demolishing buildings would almost certainly require a lot of paperwork, though. Anyway, NYC is a prime example of how it takes government to really screw up something – extremely desirable land in one of the richest cities in the world is not likely to become derelict unless the government has seriously slanted the incentives.

  5. I can’t believe that a publication called “Reason” would post such drivel. Cancel my subscription!!

    1. Naw, just f***in’ witcha. Just needed a guilt-free drink this morning. ;^)

      1. Guilt is a useless emotion.

  6. Columbia, as a university, should give research grants to any scientist who will prove the land they want must remain unoccupied or else The Earth Will Become Uninhabitable. Then, once Objective Science has cleared the land, Columbia can take it.

  7. Awesome! It’s about time.

    Is Sotomayor a basketball fan?

  8. But- but- It’s Columbia University, and they’re a SCHOOL, and stuff! They serve the Greater Good. They’d never do anything evil. Would they?

    Instead of this small-minded nit-picking, the government should be giving them a big pile of stimulus loot.

    1. Day ain’t over yet.

  9. I hate eminent domain, so anything further limits are always good. Yay Justice Catterson!

  10. Stupid joke handles.

  11. Good news, but yes, WTF? in regards to these back-to-back ED rulings.

    1. It appears the Appellate Division didn’t follow the precedent from the Court of Appeals holding that “blight” determinations are essentially unreviewable by courts. It’s kind of weird that the Appellate Division’s majority opinion didn’t even mention the Atlantic Yards ruling, considering how recent and on-point it is.

      Obviously, I disagree with the Court of Appeals on this one. Deferring to an agency interpretation of the law is a classic ploy when a court wants to punt a case away.

  12. WTF? in regards to these back-to-back ED rulings.

    The law is an imprecise science.

    1. Oh, law is a science now? Well, shit, then those climate guys should be fine. Making up bizarre claims with only the barest and most tenuous connection to reality is part and parcel of law.

  13. WTF? in regards to these back-to-back ED rulings.

    Consistency is a hobgoblin to little minds.

  14. Columbia can SUCK IT!! I live in this ‘forgotten’ neighborhood and am sick of their wonton disregard for those who live and work here, until, of course, they want the property to themselves – and for free, aaargh!!!

    1. Dude, the proper form, as developed by our poet laureate Xeones, is:

      Yo, fuck Columbia University.

      BTW, they may disregard your wontons, but do they respect your crab rangoon?

      1. Whoa, hold on there, buddy. Xeones is not poet laureate; NutraSweet is. Xeones is Treasurer.

  15. My brother goes to Columbia and said: “I got to chat with Bollinger last night. The state agency is appealing it, and it’s going to another court. He said that they think the state will win eventually”

  16. He said that they think the state will win eventually

    What reason would they have to think otherwise?

  17. I do not know about the state of NY, but would it be easier to push for blight designation reform? It really makes no sense for the city to condemn a place as blighted if the residents do not agree it is blighted. I say, let the blight designation to be subject to the vote of the residents of the designated area. Everyone loves democracy right? So lawmakers would fall over themselves trying to justify why blight designation cannot be voted upon.

  18. If I owned the Nets, I’d be concerned right now.

    If I owned the Nets, the odds of the team being wiped out in a plane crash would be much higher than that for the population at large.

  19. I think that Colombia is being despotic and only thinking about themselves. I think that they also don’t have any proof that this place is blighted so I don’t think that Colombia should expand.

  20. BLACKS MOVED TO THIS NEIGHBORHOOD IN THE 1960s AND DESTROYED IT (what a shocker, right?) Now they are complaining that “their” neighborhood is getting a facelift (read: No more welfare babies). SAME THING WITH BED-STUY, WILLIAMSBURG, HARLEM, and actually most of New York City’s ghettos — once PROUD, CLEAN neighborhoods.

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