Skip to main content

"If the blight comes through": why reform of state eminent domain laws is overdue, and notes from Senator Perkins's workshop Saturday

So, if laypeople of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) board can determine blight in Prospect Heights even if they never visit to Brooklyn, it's a mighty subjective science.

Which is why state Senator Bill Perkins's effort to reform the state's eminent domain laws is long overdue--and will be a tough battle.

For those closely following eminent domain in New York, there wasn't a huge amount new at the workshop Perkins sponsored Saturday in Albany, but--when the video becomes available--it was a good introduction to the issue.

Flashback from Radio Golf

Before I offer a summary, let's flash back to August Wilson's play about urban redevelopment, Radio Golf, on Broadway in 2007. During the play, the Bedford Hills Redevelopment Agency aims to get the city to designate certain properties as blighted.

"If the blight comes through," project supporters say at several points and, eventually, it does.

Because it, like Atlantic Yards, was a wired deal.

From the workshop

Christina Walsh of the libertarian Institute for Justice gave the big picture, calling New York "the worst state in the country for eminent domain abuse" and noting that courts "defer fully to determinations of blight" made by agencies like the ESDC.

She cited issues ignored by the state Court of Appeals in its November decision upholding the ESDC, such as the timing of the Blight Study, created after the project site was determined by Forest City Ratner, and the fact that it was paid for by the developer.

She said a study by the IJ concluded that eminent domain reform in the past few years "has no impact on economic growth."

And while that surely would be disputed by eminent domain supporters in New York, she noted that the former head of the Urban Development Corporation (the ESDC's formal name), William Stern, now thinks that eminent domain retarded progress in Times Square.

Setting the problem

Walsh quoted from Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman's opinion:
It may be that the bar has now been set too low -- that what will now pass as "blight," as that expression has come to be understood and used by political appointees to public corporations relying upon studies paid for by developers, should not be permitted to constitute a predicate for the invasion of property rights and the razing of homes and businesses. But any such limitation upon the sovereign power of eminent domain as it has come to be defined in the urban renewal context is a matter for the Legislature, not the courts.
And she quoted from Judge Robert Smith's dissent:
The whole point of the public use limitation is to prevent takings even when a state agency deems them desirable. To let the agency itself determine when the public use requirement is satisfied is to make the agency a judge in its own cause. I think that it is we who should perform the role of judges, and that we should do so by deciding that the proposed taking in this case is not for public use.
Some history

Amy Lavine of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School gave some history of blight in the state, showing the tenement houses that actually caused health hazards, and describing how the law expanded to slum clearance for public and private housing, then to increasing the tax base.

She cited dubious aspects of the blight studies for the Columbia University expansion and Atlantic Yards, such as cracked sidewalks or cars parked on the sidewalk.

As for Atlantic Yards, the site is near and abuts historic districts. And while the Vanderbilt Yard may be ugly, "is an esthetic determination enough to call it blight?" After all, she noted, the "ugly railyards" didn't stop the redevelopment of a Daily News printing plant into the Newswalk condos.

While some deteriorated buildings--she showed a slide of the Underberg Building--could be called blighted, others were deemed blighted despite no physical deterioration; she showed slides of four buildings deemed blighted because they're underutilized.

She acknowledged that blighted areas that can benefit from redevelopment but said process was important; Melrose Commons is a revived part of the South Bronx, but the development came from a coalition that worked with the city to limit displacement and reuse buildings. "There are better ways to do this," she said.

From the audience

Garry Johnson, a community board member from East Harlem, commented from the audience that affordable housing and jobs are often offered as carrots to get projects passed. "What happens, invariably, is you can't afford the affordable housing... or the jobs are temporary," as with recent layoffs at a Costco in East Harlem.

"How do we empower the community not to be so easily enticed?" he asked.

Perkins responded, "They make a fool out of us time and time again, because they dangle goodies" that are either absent or insignificant. His not-so-simple solution: vigilance.

On another note, one audience member, suggested that one way to to curtail eminent domain is to ensure that those who lose their property are stakeholders in the projects that get built, thus sharing some of the upside of the increase in development rights.

(That's been done elsewhere; see the end of this post on a post-Kelo conference.)


Popular posts from this blog

Barclays Center/Levy Restaurants hit with suit charging discrimination on disability, race; supervisors said to use vicious slurs, pursue retaliation

The Daily News has an article today, Barclays Center hit with $5M suit claiming discrimination against disabled, while the New York Post headlined its article Barclays Center sued over taunting disabled employees.

While that's part of the lawsuit, more prominent are claims of racial discrimination and retaliation, with black employees claiming repeated abuse by white supervisors, preferential treatment toward Hispanic colleagues, and retaliation in response to complaints.

Two individual supervisors, for example, are charged with  referring to black employees as “black motherfucker,” “dumb black bitch,” “black monkey,” “piece of shit” and “nigger.”

Two have referred to an employee blind in one eye as “cyclops,” and “the one-eyed guy,” and an employee with a nose disorder as “the nose guy.”

There's been no official response yet though arena spokesman Barry Baum told the Daily News they, but take “allegations of this kind very seriously” and have "a zero tolerance policy for…

Behind the "empty railyards": 40 years of ATURA, Baruch's plan, and the city's diffidence

To supporters of Forest City Ratner's Atlantic Yards project, it's a long-awaited plan for long-overlooked land. "The Atlantic Yards area has been available for any developer in America for over 100 years,” declared Borough President Marty Markowitz at a 5/26/05 City Council hearing.

Charles Gargano, chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, mused on 11/15/05 to WNYC's Brian Lehrer, “Isn’t it interesting that these railyards have sat for decades and decades and decades, and no one has done a thing about them.” Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco, in a 12/19/04 New York Times article ("In a War of Words, One Has the Power to Wound") described the railyards as "an empty scar dividing the community."

But why exactly has the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard never been developed? Do public officials have some responsibility?

At a hearing yesterday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, Kate Suisma…

Barclays Center event June 11 to protest plans to expand Israeli draft; questions about logistics

At right is a photo of a poster spotted in Hasidic Williamsburg right. Clearly there's an event scheduled at the Barclays Center aimed at the Haredi Jewish community (strict Orthodox Jews who reject secular culture), but the lack of English text makes it cryptic.

The website explains, Protest Against Israeli Draft of Bnei Yeshiva Rescheduled for Barclays Center:
A large asifa to protest the drafting of bnei yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel into the Israeli army that had been set to take place this month will instead be held on Sunday, 17 Sivan/June 11, at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn, NY. So attendees at a big gathering will protest an apparent change of policy that will make it much more difficult for traditional Orthodox Jewish students--both Hasidic (who follow a rebbe) and non-Hasidic (who don't)--to get deferments from the draft. Comments on the Yeshiva World website explain some of the debate.

The logistical questions

What's unclear is how large the ev…

Atlanta's Atlantic Yards moves ahead

First mentioned in April, the Atlantic Yards project in Atlanta is moving ahead--and has the potential to nudge Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn further down in Google searches.

According to a 5/30/17 press release, Hines and Invesco Real Estate Announce T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards:
Hines, the international real estate firm, and Invesco Real Estate, a global real estate investment manager, today announced a joint venture on behalf of one of Invesco Real Estate’s institutional clients to develop two progressive office projects in Atlanta totalling 700,000 square feet. T3 West Midtown will be a 200,000-square-foot heavy timber office development and Atlantic Yards will consist of 500,000 square feet of progressive office space in two buildings. Both projects are located on sites within Atlantic Station in the flourishing Midtown submarket.
Hines will work with Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture (HPA) as the design architect for both T3 West Midtown and Atlantic Yards. DLR Group will be t…

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Not quite the pattern: Greenland selling development sites, not completed condos

Real Estate Weekly, reporting on trends in Chinese investment in New York City, on 11/18/15 quoted Jim Costello, a senior vice president at research firm Real Capital Analytics:
“They’re typically building high-end condos, build it and sell it. Capital return is in a few years. That’s something that is ingrained in the companies that have been coming here because that’s how they’ve grown in the last 35 years. It’s always been a development game for them. So they’re just repeating their business model here,” he said. When I read that last November, I didn't think it necessarily applied to Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, now 70% owned (outside of the Barclays Center and B2 modular apartment tower), by the Greenland Group, owned significantly by the Shanghai government.
A majority of the buildings will be rentals, some 100% market, some 100% affordable, and several--the last several built--are supposed to be 50% market/50% subsidized. (See tentative timetable below.)

Selling development …

For Atlantic Yards Quality of Life meeting Sept. 19, another bare-bones agenda (green wall?)

A message from Empire State Development (ESD) reminds us that the next Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Quality of Life Meeting--which aims to update community members on construction and other issues--will be held:
Tuesday, September 19, 2017 @ 6 pm
Shirley Chisholm State Office Building
55 Hanson Place
1st Floor Conference Room
Brooklyn, NY 11217 The typically bare-bones, agenda, below, tells us nothing about the content of the presentation. One thing to look for is any hint of plans to start a new building on the southeast block of the project by the end of the year.

If not, ESD is supposed to re-evaluate a longstanding request from project neighbors to move back a giant wall encroaching on part of Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues. It's said to enclose construction activity, but, in recent months, has significantly served to protect worker parking.

Also, by the way, if you search for Atlantic Yards on Google or the ESD website, it leads to this page for the Atlantic Ya…