Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Willets Point: Evict Not!

In last Saturday's online edition of the Christian Science Monitor (there is no longer a print edition), the paper covers the presser that the Willets Point United Group held last week on the nomination of Judge Sonya Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. The controversy surrounds the judge's very expansive views of the use of eminet domain: "Ralph St. John is well into his 70s, but his stocky arms show that he is a man accustomed to hard labor. In Willets Point in the New York borough of Queens, he founded a general contracting company 36 years ago. He hoped to leave it to his son. Now, however, Mr. St. John's business is one of 250 in an industrial zone that New York City has slated for redevelopment using eminent domain. "I can't develop my property. I can't sell it.... Would you want to buy it when you know the city wants to take it away?" he asks. With the Senate's expected confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, many small-business owners are fearful that the future court will make it that much easier for powerful developers to evict them for any reason."

The group's concerns about the judge's views were magnified by her decision in Didden v. Port Chester: "In 2005, the high court took on the eminent-domain case of Kelo v. New London. In a controversial decision, the justices said that local governments could use eminent domain to spur economic development that would benefit the public. But Kelo also reaffirmed that no property can be condemned and transferred to a private party under pretext of public benefit. Bart Didden thought that his suit against the Village of Port Chester, N.Y., was such a pretextual case. But in 2006, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which included Sotomayor, upheld the village's actions in a one-page opinion."

So it appears that we will have the eminent domain controversies roiling the SC for years to come-which makes local legislative action even more necessary; and in 46 states, the laws have been changed to make it more difficult for the abuse of eminent domain for a private benefit. The struggle in NY, however, is still uphill-with the statists who disdain private property firmly in control of the legislative process.

That does not mean that changes can't be made-and the folks at WPU are ready to escalate the public relations war in the weeks and months ahead. In particular, they will be resisting any attempt by the city to evict them from their land, especially since the needed traffic mitigation that serves as the linchpin for the city'e EIS, mandates that a Van Wyck off ramp be constructed in order to avoid any traffic catastrophe.

Until there is an assurance that such a ramp will be built-and until such time that the city can demonstrate it has the necessary funds to remediate the Iron Triangle site-no eviction should be contemplated. We need to remember the fiscal fiasco surrounding the use of eminent domain for the expansion of the NYSE:

"In January, 2001the NYC Economic Development Corp began the process of condemning the apartment building at 45 Wall Street. In support of its actions, the agency touted the “public benefit” the City would derive from enhancing Manhattan’s position as a worldwide financial center, and the theory that NYSE’s departure from the city’s financial district would be detrimental to the city and state economies. The tenants’ association of 45 Wall Street challenged the development agency’s public use determination, but in October 2001, a state appeals court agreed with the agency’s findings, citing the public benefit of increased tax revenue and economic development. Amazingly, the court found that the, 'proposed project will incidentally confer a public benefit,' even though the agency’s sole rationale for supporting the condemnation was to facilitate construction of NYSE's new facility..."

And how did this whole thing go? It didn't! The expansion was never implemented and the whole deal was aborted-but not before the city took a $109 bath. As the NY Times has reported: "Apartments are for rent again at 45 Wall Street. The reopening of the apartment house at that address near the New York Stock Exchange this weekend marks the formal burial of a proposed $1.4 billion project that Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani once called a Christmas present for New York...Even so, the city estimates that unwinding the ill-fated project will cost taxpayers about $109 million. The stock exchange spent about $10 million. ''It was a lose-lose for everybody,'' said Bettina Damiani, project director of Good Jobs New York, a longtime critic of the project."

So, we need to take the fate of 45 Wall Street as a cautionary tale for Willets Point. The eviction of the businesses at the Point, following an eminent domain proceeding, makes no sense until it is clear that all of the challenges we have mentioned have been clearly met. Until then, the city needs to keep its hands of the businesses and let them continue to employ the 2500 mostly immigrant workers who, absent these jobs, would be out of work and out of luck.