Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Blighted Reason

Judgment Day has finally arrived for the eminent domain suit against the tag team of Columbia University and the Empire State Development Corporation-partners in crime against the efforts of Nick Sprayregen to keep his own property. And the Court of Appeals will be focusing on the issue that we have been hitting on for a good time: blight and its rather fluid legal definition.

Reason Magazine lays out the Sprayregen case, and why on the key issue of blight the higher court may deviate from its ruling upholding the takings in the Atlantic Yards situation: “In its notorious 2009 decision upholding the use of eminent domain on behalf of a professional basketball stadium in Brooklyn, New York’s highest court acknowledged that “there remains a hypothetical case in which we might intervene to prevent an urban redevelopment condemnation on public use grounds—where ‘the physical conditions of an area might be such that it would be irrational and baseless to call it substandard and insanitary.’”

And, of course, the blight in the Columbia expansion effort is as good example of creative accounting as we have ever seen: “But Columbia’s schemes came to a halt last December when a state appellate court struck down the ESDC’s actions. Writing for a majority of the Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department, Justice James Catterson denounced the ESDC for being “biased in Columbia’s favor” and condemned the agency’s blight determination as “mere sophistry.” It’s now up to the Court of Appeals to decide whether Justice Catterson got it right.”

Well, in our view-and it is one that devolves from the manner in which Norman Siegel skillfully uncovered the collusion between the applicant and the determining agency-peas in a pod couldn’t be more comfortable together: “This documentary record, which Siegel carefully details in the legal brief he submitted to the Court of Appeals, offers a convincing and damning portrait of government malfeasance on behalf of an elite private institution.”

In the center of the collusion, none other than the dirty-handed AKRF-consultants to die for if you want to achieve predetermined results: “In 2006, for instance, the ESDC hired the planning firm Allee King Rosen & Fleming, Inc. (AKRF) to perform an “impartial” blight study of Manhattanville. Yet as internal documents later revealed, the study was explicitly designed to rubber stamp the Columbia-ESDC agenda. In its initial outline, AKRF promised to “focus on characteristics that demonstrate blight conditions” and to emphasize “highlighting any physical blight that may be present.” In other words, the purpose of the report wasn’t to objectively determine if blight conditions were present, it was to “focus” on a pre-ordained conclusion that benefitted Columbia.”

These are the same folks who are also in the middle of a put up job over traffic analysis at Willets Point-“supervising” two firms who came to impossibly different conclusions over ramp traffic from the proposed development to the Van Wyck Expressway. But the Columbia situation really exposes how these liars for hire operate: “And AKRF was hardly a neutral party. Not only was the firm on Columbia’s payroll at that point, but at least six different AKRF employees were working on both the blight study and the redevelopment plan—a flagrant conflict of interests. Indeed, as New York’s Appellate Division, First Department concluded in an earlier decision related to the Manhattanville expansion plan, AKRF served an “advocacy function for Columbia” and suffered an “inherent conflict in serving two masters.”

But in reality, there was only one master-and it certainly wasn’t the truth. That’s because the city and state were nothing more than Columbia’s handmaidens; leading to the Appellate Court’s obvious conclusion that this wasn’t a, “civic project.” But the AKRF blight analysis exposed the firm for the fakirs they are-conjurers in the traditional religious terminology.

And conjure they most certainly did: “AKRF’s “impartial” study was even worse. For starters, AKRF failed to mention that Columbia owned 76 percent of the property in the neighborhood and was therefore directly responsible for the overwhelming majority of blight conditions that it found. Of the five buildings cited as being hazardous to the public, for example, four turned out to be under Columbia’s control. Similarly, all seven buildings cited for hazardous garbage or debris are Columbia-owned and all 12 examples of vermin occurred in Columbia buildings. Yet despite Columbia’s destructive and illegal behavior, the ESDC still plans to reward the university by seizing the last holdout properties on its behalf.”

All of this attempted sleight-of-hand dramatizes the extent to which the public authorities have allowed Columbia to bully local property owners-and the fact that 91% in the expansion footprint is in the university’s, or the public’s control, should enable Columbia to proceed without grabbing the Sprayregen and Singh’s (gas station owners) parcels. Or at least, agree to negotiate the housing swap plan that Sprayregen put forward three years ago.

But perhaps the university’s hubris will become its undoing-with the Court of Appeals laying waste to its pursuit of lebensraum. We’ll give Reason the last word: “In sum, a powerful state agency secretly colluded with a powerful private university in order to trample constitutional rights, violate the letter and spirit of the law, and force law-abiding tenants out of their homes and businesses in order to manufacture self-serving blight conditions that disfigured an otherwise livable and commercially viable neighborhood. If there was ever a case where New York’s highest court should intervene against eminent domain abuse, this is it.”

Here's the Willets Point United's Press release in support of Nick Sprayregen and the Singhs:

From: Willets Point United Inc. ("WPU") • www.willetspoint.org • unitedtriangle@gmail.com Spokesperson: Richard Lipsky • 914-572-2865 Attorney: Mike Rikon • 212-422-4000

New York, New York – June 1, 2010 For Immediate Release "Willets Point United Inc. supports Kaur plaintiffs; Recognizes fundamental similarities with Willets Point land grab" Members of Willets Point United Inc. ("WPU") have traveled to Albany to support the plaintiff property owners in Kaur v. Urban Development Corporation, and to attend the oral arguments. The circumstances of the Empire State Development Corporation's intended use of eminent domain in West Harlem to benefit Columbia University, closely resemble the City of New York's intended use of eminent domain at Willets Point to benefit an as-yet-unnamed private developer.

Self-made "blight": In West Harlem, Columbia acquired a number of buildings via private transactions, and then deliberately allowed them to sit vacant and deteriorate, thereby establishing self-made "blight" that has become a questionable basis for the use of eminent domain. Similarly, at Willets Point, the City of New York has systematically deprived the neighborhood of municipal services and infrastructure for several decades, while allowing the public property there to fall into a state of self-made disrepair, which the City believes constitutes "blight" that may become a basis for the City's use of eminent domain.

Same "blight" consultant: When authoring the West Harlem "blight study", consultant Allee King Rosen & Fleming, Inc. ("AKRF") was not a neutral party, and its report – instead of being impartial – was designed to promote a pre-ordained conclusion that benefitted Columbia University. The same firm – AKRF – also authored the Neighborhood Conditions Study that pertains to Willets Point.

No "public use": Although the Fifth Amendment requires a "public use" when property is acquired by eminent domain, in West Harlem the exercise of eminent domain is to benefit Columbia University, a private institution. At Willets Point, the exercise of eminent is to benefit an as-yet-unnamed private developer; or perhaps even a sports team franchise, as has recently been rumored.

WPU is a coalition of more than 20 Willets Point property owners who are actively opposing the City of New York's attempt to acquire their land. WPU believes that the outrageous attempts to exercise eminent domain in West Harlem and at Willets Point clearly underscore the urgent need for reform of New York State's eminent domain law, as has already been done by more than 40 other states in response to the notorious 2005 Kelo eminent domain decision. WPU calls for a moratorium on all use of eminent domain within New York State, until such time as the Eminent Domain Procedure Law has been revised to define "blight" and "just compensation"; to provide for full judicial review, including cross-examination of witnesses; and to prohibit the use of eminent domain to condemn property to facilitate development by new and favored private owners who seek merely to replace one existing use of the property with another.