In the aftermath of the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision on eminent domain—the famous Kelo v. City of New London case—I tried to explain my uncertain views on the topic in a Dec. 5 column:Eminent domain for Atlantic Yards, however, is not a process overseen by local elected officials but rather the unelected, quasi-public Empire State Development Corporation. Forest City Ratner drew the very curious map it needed and the state dutifully found blight--"relatively mild conditions of urban blight,” according to the Court of Appeals--on the project site, while across the street businesses thrive.
“The once-esoteric legal doctrine of eminent domain has put me in the middle of an unusual lobbying blitz. On one side are people who support important development projects like Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn or the expansion of Columbia University, both of which will need to involve eminent domain. On the other is my daughter, who has taken up the issue as part of her American government class and is sure eminent domain needs to be outlawed. More and more, I think my daughter is right.”
At 9:30 that Monday morning, my phone rang. “Hold for Mayor Bloomberg.” Then came the voice, unmistakable and firm. “I couldn't disagree with you more,'' the mayor said. “Without eminent domain, we will get nothing accomplished in this city!”
Missing the point
I always tell that story to my class on the New York City economy when we study commercial development issues. Then I explain how the indomitable Brooklyn gadfly Daniel Goldstein—who last week finally gave up his long fight to stop the Atlantic Yards project—convinced me the mayor was right.Hold on. Goldstein was reacting to the developer's vision, one the city supported from the start. There was no political process, no role for the City Council, no role for any local elected officials. In fact, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Dan Doctoroff told the New York Observer in December 2007:
Historically, eminent domain allowed governments to seize land for public purposes such as roads, schools, parks and airports. In Kelo, the Supreme Court said it was constitutional for states and cities to take private property on behalf of private interests for a public purpose such as improving the economy.
The complications are obvious. The government is putting the interests of one private party, in this case Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner, above those of another, in this case some existing Brooklyn residents and businesses.
Critics of the Kelo decision say that the doctrine is unfair and creates opportunities for abuse by powerful interests and that developers like Forest City can and should use their resources to buy out the other parties.
But Mr. Goldstein wasn't interested in the money. He grudgingly sold his condo last week only because his choice was to accept a $3 million offer today and move out in two weeks or wait two months for a court to evict him and award him less money. He could have gotten much more months ago, maybe years ago.
He didn't do that because his mission was to impose his vision of what was best for Brooklyn, even though New Yorkers, through their political process, had decided that Atlantic Yards was in the best interest of the city.
Without eminent domain, he would have succeeded.
“I am a huge believer in the ULURP process. I think it makes sense. It allows the issues to be aired in an appropriate way. If it happened again, and the state were to ask if I would encourage them to take Atlantic Yards through the ULURP process, I would say yes.”The project was approved by the board of the unelected ESDC and the state funding was upheld by the Public Authorities Control Board--the "three men in a room": the governor, Assembly Speaker, and Senate Majority Leader.
Goldstein wrote in response:
Mr. David, your argument almost made some sense until the very end. I wasn't trying to "impose my vision on what was best for Brooklyn even though New Yorkers, through their political process, had decided that Atlantic Yards was in the best interest of the city."
There WAS no political process. Not a single elected official ever voted on Atlantic Yards. ULURP and NYC's zoning laws were overridden, and the unaccountable, unelected ESDC and MTA made all the key decisions. New Yorkers had no political process to make any decisions about Atlantic Yards.
That is the fundamental problem with Atlantic Yards that so many have been shouting and fighting about all this time.
Furthermore, all of the benefits of Atlantic Yards, including the arena and the housing, could have been built without using eminent domain, without taking my home. All of them. But that wouldn't have been the huge gift to Forest City Ratner that the use of eminent domain has been.
So while I and many others certainly have ideas of what would be good for Brooklyn and what urban planning ideas could work and wouldn't work, I didn't impose my vision on some publicly and politically approved project. I resisted, along with thousands of others and numerous politicians, the imposed vision of one developer.