The decision at the appellate level on the expansion plans for Columbia University has generated a great deal of confusion, The court in this case, veered away from what New York court's have done in most other eminent domain cases-ruling for the plaintiff Nick Sprayregen, who gets spotlighted in Saturday's NY Times: "Mr. Sprayregen, the self-storage impresario who has been fighting Columbia University’s expansion plan, spent much of Friday reveling in a court ruling that had gone his way. It said that New York State could not use eminent domain on Columbia’s behalf to clear parcels along Broadway that Mr. Sprayregen owns."
The question of course, is whether Sprayregen's reveling will be short lived-as the Court of Appeals awaits an appeal from the university: "The agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, said it would appeal the ruling to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. Mr. Sprayregen said that no matter who won there, the case would almost certainly go to the United States Supreme Court."
But this court battle underscored the way in which state and local officials often simply rig the game against smaller property owners: "The agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, said it would appeal the ruling to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. Mr. Sprayregen said that no matter who won there, the case would almost certainly go to the United States Supreme Court."
And another thing did get exposed here-the total abdication of the city to the Columbia plan-an abdication that led the court to rule that this wasn't a, "civic project." In doing so, the court was following one of the NY State Bar Association's recommendations, issued after a task force was formed post-Kelo. Its third recommendation reads: "Agencies exercising eminent domain for economic development purposes should be required to prepare a comprehensive economic development plan and a property owner impact assessment."
Of course, as we have argued, no such plan exists in regards to Willets Point-all we have are flowery phrases and architectural renderings that can be changed at the click of a mouse. The only thing approved by the city council last year was a rezoning; a rezoning bereft of any comprehensive development plan. So how is it possible, then, to move on an eminent domain hearing if we have yet to see if there is a plan that can be properly evaluated as a public use or benefit?
All of this confusion and unfairness cries out for reform; and one reform that we have advocated for years is the creation of a truly independent environmental review process. What we have now, is simply a case of liars for hire-with folks like AKRF tailoring their "findings-in golden rule fashion-to the needs of clients. And the city and state do absolutely no independent evaluation. And in most cases, the review is of the best case scenario fashion so that communities aren't given the facts about how bad things could get in their neighborhoods.
We see this most clearly in the environmental review done for the massive Willets Point development-a fact that got the East Elmhurst and Corona residents visibly upset when they found out just how slip shod the traffic analysis was for the Iron Triangle development. Typically, the aggravating ripple effect of massive new car and truck traffic is overlooked-and in Willets Point 80,000 new car trips is evaluated in the narrowest manner, with the intersections and roadways radiating away from the project left out almost entirely.
The same is true for the Kingsbridge Armory-and, as the Marxists are wont to say, this is no accident. You get what you pay for; and a really thorough evaluation that did uncover worst case situations wouldn't ingratiate you to the real estate clients-and to the city that is enamored of their world view.
So, whatever happens at the Court of Appeals on the Columbia case, doesn't take away from the crying need for reform-both of the eminent domain law and the city's flawed land use review process. A more property owner and citizen friendly review methodology is essential in order to insure that collusion is removed from these critical policy areas.