Thursday, January 11, 2007

Kelo and Columbia

Today's NY Sun has an editorial about the use of eminent domain in the town of Port Chester. Now we had been involved about five years ago when a local manufacturer, who was not only the largest private employer in the village but was had also been induced to move downtown through a locally funded IDA bond, was informed that his property was now in the urban development zone and would be forfeit.

Now another property owner in the area had been in the process of building a retail facility with a CVS drugstore as an anchor tenant. The property owner was approached by G&S, the village designated developer, with an offer that the Sun rightfully describes as "government-backed extortion." When the owners refused to sell or make G&S full partners in the deal the village proceeded to condemn the property; "Adding insult to injury, G&S announced plans to build on the .76 acre lot a pharmacy named Walgreen's."

Here is how the use of eminent domain gets abused and the local property owners screwed. A well-connected developer in a jurisdiction known for shady dealing (the aforementioned factory owner had to go because he employed too many Hispanics and this destroyed the ambiance the village was trying to create on its waterfront) is able to put a gun to the owners head because he has the power of the state behind him.

Which is exactly the situation that is brewing with the expansion of Columbia. In this case the university isn't even bothering to try to be fair with local property owners (and overpay like Ratner did in Brooklyn), and is leaving condemnation to ESDC. But what if the city decides to build affordable housing and amends the Columbia plan accordingly? This is precisely what local owner Nick Sprayregen has proposed for his property that is within the confines of the university's footprint.

Will the city take the Sprayregen property so that Columbia will build the same housing on his land that the current owner wants to do anyway? This is precisely why any development deal that employs eminent domain needs the old standby disinfectant--sunlight. Elected officials need to stop genuflecting over a university that has never been known as Fred Rogers, and whose interactions with the local community have always been exclusively on a noblesse oblige basis.

The bottom line is that local property owners, just like the ones in Willets Point who are threatened with eviction in the same manner, need to be incorporated into the development plan, especially when it is clear that the inclusion will only serve the public interest and preserve basic property rights. Columbia doesn't need to be afforded this kind of policy power when there are ways that its development can proceed in partnership with local entrepreneurs who have served the community for years.