Archive | Blight

Is the Debate Over Eminent Domain “Empty and Incoherent”?

In a recent post on Kaur v. Urban Development Corporation, the Columbia eminent domain case currently before New York’s state supreme court, NYU lawprof Rick Hills argues that the debate over eminent domain is largely meaningless. Kaur, like the Atlantic Yards case before it, addresses a key issue in takings law: whether the condemnation of “blighted” property for transfer to a private party qualifies as a “public use” under state and federal constitutions even if “blight” is defined so broadly that almost any area can be declared blighted and condemned.

Hills argues that efforts to address this question are ultimately futile and tend to elide the really important issues:

[T]he doctrinal battle… [in Kaur] really is rooted in empty, incoherent blather that can never be a satisfying basis for a doctrine. “Blight” is an epithet in search of a definition, while “public use” is either merely a requirement of public benefit (in which case, it is judicially unmanageable) or a requirement of public title (in which case, it is a perverse encouragement of statist inefficiency).

The concepts of “public use” and “blight” ignore the real and fundamental dilemma raised by over-fragmented land — viz.: (a) land markets tend to do a poor job of re-assembling over-fragmented parcels but (b) assemblers use eminent domain to hog all of the post-assembly surplus, to the justified resentment of the dispossessed owners. Absent some assembly mechanism beyond arms’ length private bargaining, Manhattanville will be locked into drab industrial uses — gas stations, storage facilities, auto repair, etc — that, I strongly suspect, the owners themselves would quickly jettison if they could get a reasonable share of the “post-assembly” value. Getting rid of eminent domain will not vindicate these owners’ private property rights: It will simply insure that they can remain trapped

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New York High Court Oral Argument in Columbia Eminent Domain Case

The New York Court of Appeals (which, despite the misleading name, is New York’s state supreme court), held oral arguments yesterday in Kaur v. New York Urban Development Corporation, the case in which New York City is trying to condemn a large amount of property in the Manhattanville neighborhood in order to transfer it to Columbia University. The Columbia Spectator has an interesting summary of the oral argument here.

Columbia and the government’s Urban Development Corporation are claiming that the property can be taken because it is “blighted.” However, a lower court decision recently invalidated the takings because that the studies that supposedly prove the existence of blight are flawed and may have been deliberately cooked up to justify a bogus taking.

I have been very critical of both the Columbia takings specifically (see here for the most recent post and links to earlier ones), and the more general use of broad definitions of “blight” to justify condemnation of virtually any property that might be coveted by politically influential businesses and other interest groups.
At the same time, for reasons I discussed here, I am not optimistic that the Court of Appeals will uphold the lower court’s decision.

In the recent Atlantic Yards case, the court endorsed the constitutionality of condemnations under an extremely broad definition of “blight” that would allow the taking of any property that might be “underdeveloped.” I think the Atlantic Yards decision was badly misguided. Among other things, it grossly misinterpreted the blight provision New York’s state constitution, which only allows condemnation of “substandard an insanitary” areas. Nonetheless, it is difficult to distinguish the Atlantic Yards case from Kaur. However, the Spectator’s description of the oral argument suggests that the judges were tough on both sides, which may indicate [...]

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Last Atlantic Yards Property Owner Agrees to Sell His Land Under Threat of Condemnation

The last property owner in the condemned Atlantic Yards area of Brooklyn, New York has agreed to sell his land in order to avoid the condemnation of his property by the city government [HT: Josh Blackman]:

The last man standing in front of the Atlantic Yards bulldozer has stepped aside.

Daniel Goldstein — founder of the anti-Atlantic Yards group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn and plaintiff in numerous unsuccessful suits against the $4.9 billion project — has reached an agreement with the project’s developer, Forest City Ratner, to move out of his condo on Pacific Street in Prospect Heights.

Mr. Goldstein confirmed that he would receive $3 million from Forest City. He bought his condo in 2003 for $590,000, but the state seized title to it under eminent domain last month, leaving Mr. Goldstein facing eviction. Mr. Goldstein said he would move by May 7.

He had told The Brooklyn Paper in an article published Wednesday morning that his lawyer would fight the condemnation or “get fair market value and just compensation” for the apartment, as eminent domain law requires when the state seizes property. He had said the state had previously made a lowball offer of $510,000 to him.

Goldstein may have received a higher than market value price for his land in exchange for agreeing not to speak out against the development project anymore:

According to executives who have been briefed on the negotiations, Mr. Goldstein also agreed to a highly modified form of the gag agreement that Forest City had initially imposed on those it bought out, under which he would step down as spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.

Mr. Goldstein said that he retains his right to free speech but is no longer allowed to “actively oppose the project.”

“There’s no end to the criticism

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Nicole Gelinas on Blight Condemnations in New York

Nicole Gelinas has an interesting article on the expansive use of “blight condemnations” in New York. As she points out, New York courts have defined blight so broadly that virtually any area can be designated as such, and then condemned. This has created massive opportunities for abuse by politically connected interest groups who can use eminent domain to get the government to take property they covet.

Gelinas has an extensive discussion of two famous recent New York blight condemnation cases: the Atlantic Yards case, and Columbia University’s efforts to acquire property through condemnation in Manhattanville. I have written about both extensively. See here for my analysis of the Atlantic Yards decision, and here for the Columbia case. Both posts include links to earlier cases.

Unfortunately, New York is far from the only state that defines blight broadly enough to justify the condemnation of almost any area. As I discuss here and here, numerous other states have similar laws. This enables many state legislatures to pretend that they have banned Kelo-style “economic development” condemnations even as they allow them to continue under the guise of alleviating blight. [...]

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George Will on “Blight” Condemnations in New York

George Will has written a Washington Post column on the abuse of “blight” condemnations in New York:

On Aug. 27, 1776, British forces routed George Washington’s novice army in the Battle of Brooklyn, which was fought in fields and woods where today the battle of Prospect Heights is being fought. Americans’ liberty is again under assault, but this time by overbearing American governments.

The fight involves an especially egregious example of today’s eminent domain racket. The issue is a form of government theft that the Supreme Court encouraged with its worst decision of the past decade — one that probably will be radically revised in this one.

The Atlantic Yards site, where 10 subway lines and one railway line converge, is the center of the bustling Prospect Heights neighborhood of mostly small businesses and middle-class residences. Its energy and gentrification are reasons why 22 acres of this area — the World Trade Center site is only 16 acres — are coveted by Bruce Ratner, a politically connected developer collaborating with the avaricious city and state governments.

To seize the acres for Ratner’s use, government must claim that the area — which is desirable because it is vibrant — is “blighted….”

The Constitution says that government may not take private property other than for a “public use….” In 1954, however, in a case concerning a crime- and infectious-disease-ridden section of Washington, D.C., the court expanded the notion of “public use” to include removing “blight.”

Since then, that term, untethered from serious social dangers, has become elastic in the service of avarice….

I discussed the state high court decision upholding the Atlantic Yards condemnations in this post. For my earlier analyses of the case, see here and here. Will’s column also discusses the recent court decision striking down Columbia University’s [...]

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New York Intermediate Appellate Court Invalidates Taking of “Blighted” Property for Transfer to Columbia University, but Contradicts Recent State Supreme Court Decision in the Process

In Kaur v. New York Urban Development Corporation,a close 3-2 decision [HT: Neighborhood Retail Alliance], a New York intermediate appellate court has invalidated the taking of property in the Manhattanville neighborhood of New York City for transfer to Columbia University. Columbia and the government claimed that the land in question was blighted. However, the court ruled that there was no evidence of any real blight (especially before Columbia acquired much of the surrounding area after 2002), other than claims of “underutilization” of property. And mere “underutilization,” the majority concludes, is not enough to justify the condemnation of property as “blighted.” As the court puts it, “[t]he time has come to categorically reject eminent domain takings solely based on underutilization.” I wholeheartedly agree with this general sentiment. Indeed, I have often argued against broad definitions of blight that allow virtually any property to be condemned on the grounds that some other use might lead to increased development (see, e.g., here). Overbroad definitions of blight undercut many of the eminent domain “reform” laws enacted in response to the US Supreme Court’s decision upholding “economic development” takings in Kelo v. City of New London. I also think the majority makes a strong case that the blight determination in this case severely flawed, and in large part the product of the government’s desire to transfer property to a politically influential university. Indeed, I have often criticized Columbia’s plans to use eminent domain in Manhattanville, in a series of posts going back to 2006 (see here for the most recent post, and links to earlier ones).

There is, however, one major problem with the Kaur decision: it seems to contradict the New York Court of Appeals’ (the state supreme court) recent decision in the Atlantic Yards case, Goldstein v. New [...]

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New York Court of Appeals Upholds Atlantic Yards Condemnations

The New York Court of Appeals has issued its opinion in Goldstein v. New York State Urban Development Corporation, an important property rights case. The 6-1 decision upholds the condemnation of numerous properties in Atlantic Yards project area in Brooklyn for the purpose of transferring them to powerful developer Bruce Ratner, who plans to use most of the land to build a new stadium for the New Jersey Nets and to construct “luxury” housing. This outcome is not surprising. As I explained in this post, where I predicted the result, New York courts are among the most hostile to property rights of any in the country. New York is also one of only seven states that hasn’t enacted eminent domain reform of any kind since the federal Supreme Court’s controversial 2005 decision upholding “economic development” condemnations in Kelo v. City of New London.

Significantly the Court concluded that the property in question could be condemned because it is “blighted” and blight alleviation is a “public use” recognized by the New York Constitution, thanks to a constitutional amendment allowing the condemnation of slum areas. This despite the fact that it is very far from being a slum of any kind, and much of it is actually middle or lower middle class housing. Indeed, the opinion itself notes (pg. 14) that the Atlantic Yards area “do[e]s not begin to approach in severity the dire circumstances of urban slum dwelling” that led to the enactment of the blight amendment. To get around this problem, the Court held that “blight” alleviation is not limited to “’slums’ as that term was formerly applied, and that, among other things, economic underdevelopment and stagnation are also threats to the public sufficient to make their removal cognizable as a public purpose” (pp. 15-16, [...]

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New York’s Highest Court to Hear Important Eminent Domain Case

The New York Court of Appeals – the state’s highest court -is about to consider an important property rights case, Goldstein v. New York State Urban Development Corporation. The case involves a challenge to the condemnation of large amounts of property for the purpose of transferring the land to influential developer Bruce Ratner, who plans to use most of it to build a stadium for the New Jersey Nets (which he owns), and “luxury housing.” The targeted property owners argue that these takings are not for a “public use,” as the New York state constitution requires. Certainly, the case is a fairly egregious example of the use of eminent domain power to benefit private interests. I wrote about this taking in a 2008 post addressing the federal court case in which the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld these condemnations under the federal Constitution (as it was required to do, given the Supreme Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London):

…[T]he fact that much of the condemned land is to be used to build a sports stadium raises serious red flags about the true likelihood that the general public will benefit from the condemnation. Numerous studies by economists show that public subsidies for stadium construction create no economic benefits for the general public….

Second, the court claims that the creation of “affordable housing” for the poor is one of the public benefits to be expected from the project. The project will indeed create some new housing units (in addition to the stadium). However, as the Second Circuit opinion concedes (pg. 15), almost 70% of the new housing units will be “luxury” units for the wealthy, and the remainder is mostly not guaranteed to be ever built and is still intended for the “middle class” rather than

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