Monday, June 28, 2010

In the Domain Of Neither Left or Right

Last week’s disastrous-and craven-Court of Appeals decision overturning the Appellate Court ruling against Columbia U’s expansion, has been received derisively by both conservatives and liberals; although the anger against the larger issue is being stoked primarily from the conservative side of the political plate. That is epitomized by the manner in which SCOTUS divided on Kelo, with liberal judges siding with the condemners.

But as far as Columbia is concerned the ideological divide is more blurry-with the liberal Mayor Bloomberg riding the bulldozers; and the even more liberal Senator Bill Perkins manning the barricades against the city’s effort. So with this is mind, it is useful to point out that the Drum Major Institute-folks that we don’t normally see eye to eye with-has been staking out an opposing position in support of property owner Nick Sprayregen.

As Emi Wang writes on the DMI blog: “Case after case, courts have simply deferred to the judgments of government agencies, granting the ESDC free rein to determine what is blighted, and then acquiescing to those determinations. As the appellate court pointed out in 2009, both the ESDC and Columbia University used the same contractor to conduct the study of the area that led to its blighted designation, a designation that Justice James Catterson threw out the window. Furthermore, the courts have steadily expanded the definition of “public use,” allowing private developers to simply argue that their project has a purportedly superior utility than its current use. In questioning, even the ESDC’s own attorney admitted that Columbia’s justification for the use of eminent domain could also be applied in the future to the expansion of such elite entities as private schools.”

Jonathan Tobin, on the conservative Contentions website, makes common cause with DMI’s Wang: “While I have no quarrel with the university’s desire to expand the Morningside Heights campus, where I spent my undergraduate years north into Harlem, the idea that it can use its clout with the state to bludgeon those who will not sell to it is repulsive. Moreover, the court decision, which overruled a lower appeals court’s rejection of the use of eminent domain in this case, is especially troubling. Though most of the property owners in the West Harlem area desired by Columbia sold it, some did not. In response, Columbia prevailed upon the State of New York to condemn the recalcitrant owners’ property upon the doubtful premise that it was “blighted,” which mandated its demolition and replacement with more useful (at least to Columbia) projects, which might ultimately generate more tax revenue. The four active warehouses and two bustling gas stations that Columbia wished to flatten to make way for new buildings of its own do not fit that description of “blighted,” though there is no shortage of locations in New York City that do.”

Although it’s certainly not clear that the not for profit university will generate greater tax revenues to the city since Columbia pays no real estate taxes at all. And if the city was looking to generate real economic development in what could be seen as the largest underutilized parcel in Manhattan, all it had to do was re-zone the area to allow for more densely productive uses.

That zoning change, however, would have not only allowed the existing property owners to benefit from their longstanding investment in this West Harlem neighborhood; it would have also forced Columbia to pay for the then more valuable land. In fact, Sprayregen had already asked the City Planning Commission to re-zone his property so that he could develop it and provide greater value for both himself and the city. Not surprisingly, in the fact of the fix that was in, the CPC denied the Sprayregen application.

And then there’s the issue of affordable housing-supposedly a signature issue for the Bloombergistas. But, like all such signatures in this administration, it is simply a forgery. With a large swath of underutilized land ripe for development neither the city nor the local council member thought that it should be incumbent on Columbia to-in exchange for the city’s provision of a gun to the heads of local property owners-provide a commensurate amount of affordable housing for West Harlem residents.

For its part, Columbia, knowing full well that Bloomberg had its back, simply refused to discuss the idea of a property swap with Sprayregen that would have enabled Nick to build around 2,000 units of housing across Broadway. So this, “civic project,” is all by Columbia and for Columbia-and while we think that it is in the city’s interest for the university to expand, that interest is not so compelling that it overrides the constitutional rights of Sprayregen and the Singhs (gas station owners in the bulldozers’ path).

What the Court of Appeals has done is to underscore what we had suspected all along-New York law affords absolutely zero protection for property rights. This is the challenge ahead, and the state needs its own Castle Coalition that will create the groundswell for that legal change. If that doesn’t happen, the people of Willets Point United will not be the only ones under the gun-it will be everyone who owns a home or a business in the state (except for the privileged class of billionaires that the mayor fronts for with such zeal).