Property Rights

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

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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.