Friday, February 01, 2008

Looking at Jeffries' opposition to eminent domain for the AY arena

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, elected in 2006, has long held a (take your pick) nuanced or calculated position on Atlantic Yards, supporting the goals for minority hiring/contracting and affordable housing, yet criticizing transportation planning and excess density, and declaring that he opposed eminent domain to build a basketball arena--though not for the project as a whole.

He mentioned that issue again Wednesday night at his "State of the District" address, which allows him to be critical of the project without actually joining the opponents who are suing to block eminent domain.

While issues of process and planning may be amenable to negotiation, eminent domain is far less open to negotiation, given that the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) has announced its intent to pursue condemnation for properties developer Forest City Ratner has not been able to acquire. And the ESDC has defended its position quite vigorously in court.

Political positioning

Jeffries' position (click to enlarge), developed in 2006 when he was a candidate facing against clear AY opponent Bill Batson and proponent Freddie Hamilton, allowed him to establish a mend-it-don't-end-it position.

But the eminent domain date is drawing closer, as the ESDC defends a lawsuit filed by 14 plaintiffs, including three residential tenants, one commercial tenant, and two residential owners within the proposed arena footprint. (One of those owners has tenants.)

Of the plaintiffs in the footprint as a whole, two of the six residential renters as a whole are said to have settled, and it's possible that they are among the three cited above. Another pair of lawsuits, yet unresolved, have been filed by 13 tenants living in the footprint of the arena block, who also face displacement.

And the dismissal of the state lawsuit challenging the project, though it will be appealed, is another step toward condemnation.

Querying Jeffries

“My commitment to not supporting eminent domain for an arena remains firm,” Jeffries told me January 4, when I interviewed him about his comments comparing Atlantic Yards and Downtown Brooklyn development.

Will ESDC not pull the trigger?

Jeffries hasn’t supported the lawsuit--which challenges the project as a whole--so why hasn’t he done more than state his position?

“Eminent domain will have to be exercised through the ESDC. I’m not convinced that the [Gov. Eliot] Spitzer administration needs this fight,” he responded. “The Spitzer administration had a very uneven first year. He has a very aggressive and ambitious agenda for reform in Albany. I think they’re going to make every effort to be sensitive to concerns of local elected officials.”

“They inherited this lawsuit,” he said. “I think it will be a terrible fight for them to take on. I still think the Spitzer administration hopes for a negotiated solution. Ethically it’s not right to throw someone out of their home to build a basketball arena.”

I told Jeffries that all signs show that the Spitzer administration is moving forward to do exactly that. “If they pull the trigger,” he said, “it’s a tough political decision that I think will have negative implications on their ability to move forward with their agenda. That’s just my instincts, but assuming my other colleagues are as passionate as I am, there are going to be consequences.”

Consequences?

But what impact can Jeffries have, even with the help of some fellow local elected state officials? Spitzer last year did not heed requests by several organizations--including those not opposed to Atlantic Yards--and elected officials who asked that he support a delay in the AY approval vote.

Yes, the governor has suffered some political setbacks. But it's easy to imagine project proponents arguing that the number of displaced residents would be relatively small, given the expected benefits the state has calculated. And there's no reason to think Spitzer will back off from the AY steamroller, whatever concerns Jeffries and other officials express.

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