Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Council's Domain

In the culmination of the Council's vote on behalf of the Columbia expansion, Speaker Quinn addressed the eminent domain issue. As she told the NY Sun: "Let me be clear — I think eminent domain should be used infrequently. It should be used carefully and cautiously and it should only be used when there is an overriding greater good in the interest of the city and I think certainly the possible creation of 6,000 jobs, economic development, job creation — those are relevant reasons and appropriate reasons to use eminent domain."

She is clear here to us. What her statement means is that there are virtually no circumstances involving any large economic development project where she wouldn't approve the use of eminent domain-all such projects involve job creation and economic development, Our issue, and it has been all along, is the need to incorporate a process that addresses property rights and recognizes that they are fundamental to liberty.

That does not mean that, at the end of the day, that ED isn't used; it just means that the potential use of ED is elevated into the center of the land use discussion-something that the Council chose not to do, even while they made very sure to include all of the community benefits as a critical feature of legislative approval. If the use of ED is not germane to ULURP, as we're told repeatedly, than neither is the amount of money that Columbia ponies up for affordable housing.

Which brings us to the community benefits. Does anyone know the process by which CU will be held accountable? Here's the money quote from Metro: "The CBA was still being finalized, and the terms were not disclosed to Council members before the vote. LDC president and C.B. 9 member Patricia Jones said a memorandum of understanding — “the precursor” to an agreement — has been signed in which Columbia would contribute $150 million for affordable housing, job creation, arts programming and historic preservation. The deal will also include a high school and K–8 school. City Councilman Robert Jackson said his community needed jobs, better schools, affordable housing and health care. “These needs will hopefully be met,” he said. “Can I guarantee that? Absolutely not, just like I can’t guarantee I’ll be alive tomorrow,” said Jackson, who had a rep on the LDC. “I believe this is the best plan we can do under the circumstances.”

Can you believe that, with weeks left on the ULURP clock, the Council leadership rushed this to a vote before anyone knows what the deal is, or how it will be enforced? As Council member Barron told the NY Times: “I don’t think we should rush to give Columbia University a Christmas present,” Councilman Charles Barron said before he voted against the plan. “We’re here to support the people’s right to participate in this process.”

Which means that city and state elected officials have a great deal of responsibility here-and as we've emphasized before, the area of affordable housing is the central conundrum because no one knows the size of Columbia's check or where any housing will be built to mitigate the potential displacement of 5,000 local residents.

All in all, however, this was not a good day for the council's vaunted reinvention as an accountable and transparent legislature. It remains for others to take the responsibility of balancing the equities here, and in insuring that the expansion moves forward both expeditiously and fairly.