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A rally against eminent domain abuse, four City Council members and the "Willets Point effect"

As the fight against eminent domain abuse heats up, maybe it's time to start talking about "the Willets Point effect." The coalition fighting the Atlantic Yards project has gathered savvy from a high-profile battle lasting more than three years. Those challenging Columbia University's West Harlem expansion have a clear David vs. Goliath fight. And the two homeowners on Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn have strong suggestions of a link to the Underground Railroad in the face of denial by the city agency that wants their land.

(Photos by Jonathan Barkey; here's the full portfolio.)

But the 225 businesses operating in the “Iron Triangle” of Willets Point, Queens, employing some 1800 workers, have the manpower and muscle to mount a very public fight against the city’s plans for an upscale development that would include some 5500 housing units, a hotel and convention center, a million square feet of retail and 500,000 square feet of office space.

So, as the four disparate groups gathered yesterday on the steps of City Hall to join in a rally as New Yorkers Against Eminent Domain Abuse, the Willets Point contingent was the largest and the loudest, wearing hats and t-shirts indicating their protest, arriving by bus with signs in tow.

And given that a good number were white guys who do physical labor, the group in some ways echoed the contingent of construction workers who flooded Atlantic Yards public hearings last summer to argue for, rather than against, condemnation.

More than 100

The rally, hosted by Lumi Rolley of NoLandGrab (who has honored me here and here) and promoted by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), drew more than 100 protesters, including City Council Members Letitia James and Charles Barron of Brooklyn, Tony Avella and Hiram Monserrate of Queens, plus the chief of staff of Council Member John Liu, also from Queens.

The gathering occurred just a few days after the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s controversial 5-4 Kelo v. New London decision, which reaffirmed the right of governmental entities to take private land for economic development, again saying that tax revenues do constitute an example of “public purpose”—as opposed to “public use” as eminent domain was originally defined.

The decision generated a backlash around the country across the political spectrum, beyond the right-wing and libertarian groups that have long opposed eminent domain. (Several people yesterday carried signs produced by the Institute for Justice, a longtime opponent of eminent domain.)

Many states—though not New York--have passed laws to narrow the use of eminent domain. Still, most states have not tightened the definition of “blight,” which was not affected by Kelo, and has been used to pursue condemnations, including in the Atlantic Yards case.

“The legal definition of blight is so absurd,” Rolley said, leading off the rally. Her web site is mainly a portal cataloging and critiquing Atlantic Yards-related news and information, though it does extend to other issues related to eminent domain.

Council Members speak

“We cannot engage in the subjective definition of blight,” James (right) declared, after leading the crowd in a chant of “Hell no, we won’t go.” “It must be based on deteriorating buildings, not just blight created by the developer. Forest City Ratner should not be rewarded.”

James said eminent domain was “stealing property for individuals in high places,” adding that “the Mayor cannot talk about [PlaNYC] 2030 and support eminent domain.” She said she hoped the Atlantic Yards case challenging eminent domain—currently pending appeal in federal appellate court—goes all the way to the Supreme Court.

“It’s probably the only time I agree with Clarence Thomas,” said the generally liberal Council Member, contrasting herself with the right-wing justice. Both are African-American.

The firebrand Barron, after criticizing eminent domain, also made reference to the special deal for Atlantic Yards inserted into the state legislature’s reform of the 421-a tax break. “If you get the information an hour before… you need to vote no,” he said.

Avella, a candidate for mayor in 2009, hearkened back to the traditional notion of eminent domain, which took homes for highways and other clear public use. “Now we’re taking private property so we can turn it over to private developers,” he said. “That is so un-American.”
(At right, Avella, with James and Barron behind him.)

Actually, it is legal—the question is whether states will narrow the powers.

Willets Point

Dan Scully of the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association (WPIRA) said that business owners had been ignored. “For 30 years, we’ve been telling the city we need sewers and we need streets. For 30 years, they’ve ignored us,” said Scully, who's in the top photo.

WPIRA aims for “owner development” of the area. “We’re not blighted. “We’re neglected by the city,” said Scully, a vice-president at Tully Construction. (Here's Tom Angotti's May article, A Sustainability Test at Willets Point, from Gotham Gazette.)

Joe Ardizzone, a crusty 74-year-old who’s the only legal resident of Willets Point, declared, “It’s so un-American. It’s too much to even explain.”

(Now there's a Coalition for Willets Point arguing for community benefits if eminent domain proceeds.)

Other voices

Nellie Hester Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council, talking about the fight against Columbia, said, “We have to look at the elected officials who are not here today,” pointing to Mayor Bloomberg.

Ron Shiffman, founding director of the Pratt Center for Community Development and a longtime consultant to community planning groups, said, “if we want New York City to grow, the only way to do it is with a diversity of jobs, not just FIRE [Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate] but also manufacturing.”

Eminent domain, he said, must be used “only for public purpose, not to make the rich richer.” Shiffman’s on the DDDB Advisory Board.

Council Member Monserrate showed up in the middle of the event, and declared, “We should never use eminent domain to enrich others.”

(At right, Monserrate, with Rolley next to him and Bailey and Henry Weinstein, a major property owner in the Atlantic Yards footprint, behind him.)

Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, called eminent domain “the thermonuclear warhead of city planning.”

Who’s responsible?

Joy Chatel, a Duffield Street homeowner, asked, “Governor Spitzer, where are you?" He hasn't spoken out against eminent domain abuse.

Closing the rally, DDDB spokesman Daniel Goldstein (right) declared, “When they say it’s a public use just because they say it’s a public use, it doesn’t mean it’s a public use.” He offered the same mantra substituting the word “blight” for “public use.”

“The mayor says often, ‘you can’t let one guy’ stand in the way of development,” Goldstein continued. “We’re not ‘one guy.’”

He pointed out that eminent domain does seem to be an official policy, citing the June 2001 Group of 35 report, organized by Sen. Chuck Schumer, that identified condemnation as a tactic to assemble sites for office space.

(Note that Mayor Bloomberg made fighting federal curbs on eminent domain a priority last year; meanwhile, his law department stresses a principled approach, as with development of Melrose Commons.)

What to do

There were only a handful of reporters at the rally, plus various observers, including some from the New York City Economic Development Corporation, keeping tabs on the opposition.

At the end, with most people drenched in sweat, there was only one question: what should the legislature do?

Goldstein pointed out that bills to reform eminent domain had languished in the legislature. “When it comes to blight, we need a strong definition,” he said, suggesting that government neglect, cracked sidewalks, and underused properties—all cited or hinted at in the state’s Atlantic Yards Blight Study—should be struck in favor of “genuinely unsafe and unhealthy neighborhoods.”

“I have a joke,” he continued. “What’s the definition of blight? Yours.”