Friday, July 18, 2008

Eminently Destructive

The board of the Empire State Development Corporation voted yesterday, after spirited testimony that was decidedly negative, to support going forward, using eminent domain, on behalf of Columbia University's expansion plan. As the New York Observer wrote: "The state's main development agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, kicked of the public process for eminent domain for Columbia University's 17-acre West Harlem expansion today, starting a final chapter in the approvals for the contentious $7 billion initiative."

There were, however, two new wrinkles added: "In announcing the process, ESDC President Avi Schick unveiled two unexpected nuggets of news surrounding the plan: yet another concession package from Columbia and a second blight study." Another consultant and blight study, you say? Why the need?

Well, as the NY Sun reported yesterday, the appellate court ruling raised a real conflict of interest problem for ESDC and Columbia; furthering the prospects that Nick Srayregen and his attorney Norman Siegel might prevail in de-railing the study and postponing any ED action: "Further complicating matters and possibly adding a legal foothold for Mr. Siegel was a ruling that came down on Tuesday from a state appellate court. The ruling upheld a June 2007 decision that said the ESDC's decision to hire AKRF, which had also worked for Columbia, represented a conflict of interest."

State Senator Bill Perkins chimed in for the Sun on this precise issue: "State Senator William Perkins said in an interview that in light of the ruling, the Columbia University development process should be immediately halted because, if nothing else, it fuels "the perception of collusion" between the state, Columbia, and AKRF. "It would seem to me that it would have been easy to get another consultant and avoid any stench of collusion, and it would seem to me very irresponsible to subject the agency and its credibility to such an easily avoidable accusation," he said."

Perkins, who is the ranking minority member on the senate's corporation committee (and potentially Richard Brodsky's partner in crime should the Dems take over), continued in this vein at yesterday's ESDC hearing. According to the Observer: "So everything's copacetic, right?
State Senator Bill Perkins, the main elected official critical of the expansion, was not too pleased that he wasn't informed about the second study (he told the Sun today that the state should do a second study). In his comments at the board meeting, he had a rather contentious back and forth with Mr. Schick, seemingly trying to push his buttons (at least in private, many in government say Mr. Schick has something of a short fuse), though the ESDC president kept his cool.
A sampling of the exchange:

Mr. Perkins: "Why was I not told that such a study was in the works?"
"Senator, I don't know, there are numerous—"
Mr. Perkins: "Do we have staff here that can go get the information that I am requesting so that before I leave I can know for sure what I'm talking about?"

"Senator before you leave today, we will endeavor to get the answer—

"Endeavor? That sounds like it's something that's difficult to do. It is either yes you will get it, or no you won't."

"Senator—Senator, with all respect, in the dozen meetings and conversations you and I have had—"

Perkins was simply underscoring the larger conflict of interest point-one that isn't resolved by last minute sleights of hand that pull a new consultant out of a hat. Perkins went on to ask: "Whose data is being used? (by the new guys); "When were the surveys done?" Clearly, Perkins knows a set-up when he sees it.

Here's how Sprayregen, in yesterday' Crain's Insider, described the court's verdict on the AKRF matter: "But the key is the court’s finding of “an inherent conflict in [Alee King] serving two masters,” Sprayregen says. “This puts a cloud over the blight study. It raises issues of bias. We intend to attack the validity of the blight study. Without that study, there is no eminent domain.” The substitution effect fools no one. As we told one reporter, when you put a new cover on an old study isn't that, by definition, a cover-up?

The hearing also brought the issue of housing to the fore, with Nellie Baily of the Harlem Tenants Council blasting the CU plan for its displacement-according to Columbia's own report-of 5,000 residents. Nothing in the new bennies reported addresses the housing question-a real big opening to the Sprayregen swap concept unveiled at the end of last year.

Which brings us to the blight designation itself. According to the Times CityRoom Blog yesterday: "Opponents of the $6 billion expansion plan said the results of the study that found the area to blighted were a foregone conclusion, because AKRF Inc., the firm hired by the state to conduct the report, known as a blight study, had also performed an environmental analysis of the same site for Columbia University. (Two courts have questioned whether it was appropriate for the state to have used the same consultant that Columbia did.) The report by AKRF found that the area mostly comprised “aging, poorly maintained and functionally obsolete industrial buildings with little indication of recent reinvestment to revive their generally deteriorated condition.”

So, which report's being used here? And what use is the new consultant? As Norman Siegel told the hearing, the idea that the area in question is blighted is directly challenged by the definition in the statute; and any deterioration in the neighborhood is a direct result of the planned destruction initiated by Columbia itself after it purchased the properties it currently owns. It should be one heck of a legal battle ahead.