Columbia's not-so-eminent domain

I recently posted on government misuse of the power of eminent domain, and return to that subject now with news of a startling appeals court ruling that would bar use of eminent domain to help Columbia University expand in upper Manhattan. Having written about development issues in New York on and off for about 25 years, it has been a long time since I've seen a court ruling that so directly addressed the coziness of government officials, developers and their consultants in the rush to push through a major real estate project.In this case, the court found the public review process was thwarted because of excessive secrecy on the part of New York state authorities who refused to release the appropriate public information about the project. This is routine. I recall that in writing about one development project that relied on use of eminent domain (which resulted in construction of the headquarters of The New York Times), the "spokesperson" for this same agency would not even come to the phone to say "no comment." Economic development agencies in state and local government frequently ally themselves with developers and see the inquiring public and news media as the enemy.The appeals court also mocked the designation of the development site as "blighted," a requirement under New York law for condemnation. The decision reveals that this is a term developers and their friends in government use very freely - if you have a one-story home on a lot zoned to allow a two-story home, your property is "blighted," as far as they are concerned, since the land is only 50% utilized.I don't know how much of this ruling will survive appeal to the state's top court, but it is good to see state authorities and a powerful university called to account. In the end, it may seem a slight victory to have a couple of gas stations (a few blocks from Commonweal's office) remain in places where Columbia wants to put new buildings. But the court ruling says that process matters in a democracy and that the end, however desired, doesn't justify the means.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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