|The Manhattan Institutes|
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the citys planning, housing, and development
|A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow|
The question of whether government has the right to condemn private propertyand, in the name of a public purpose, turn it over to private developersis once again before the U.S. Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London. And though the case is from Connecticut, New York City's lawyers have been prompt on the scene, quick to support yet another expansion in the government's arsenal of property takings. "The City of New York has been in the forefront of the urban renewal movement," boasts Michael Cardozo, Corporation Counsel, in the first sentence of the city's friend-of-the-court brief.
Indeed it has been, although that seems an odd thing to boast about. In The Federal Bulldozer Martin Anderson concluded that through 1962 New York State alone accounted for 32.4% of the entire country's federally funded urban renewal construction activityvirtually all in New York City. New York neighborhoods are only now recovering from the depredations of urban renewal, which condemned enormous swaths of property throughout the five boroughs, demolishing their buildings and leaving vacant lots where homes and businesses had once stood. Some neighborhoods, such as East Harlem, where urban renewal cleared one-third of the land to build the Wagner, Jefferson, and Taft public housing projects, have not truly recovered and probably never willat least until the blight caused by urban renewal is undone.
WHY CITIZENS ARE AGAIN CHALLENGING EMINENT DOMAIN
So-called public purposes these days include headquarters for multinational corporations, sports arenas for national franchises, private research facilities, shopping centers, casinos, private office buildings, etc. It's hard to think of an economic activity that is not now encompassed by some government entity's understanding of "public purpose."
New York City, usually with the help of New York State, is actively engaged in taking prime property in good neighborhoods away from private owners, in order to turn it over to wealthier and more powerful owners. In Times Square, for example, which is itself the product of one of the 20th century's largest land condemnations, the city and state condemned property on 43rd Street in order to turn it over to Forest City Ratner to build the new headquarters of the New York Times. Similarly, the state plans to condemn the property of hundreds of homeowners and businesses in downtown Brooklyn to make way for a 19,000-seat basketball arena for the Nets and 5,800 housing units also developed by Ratner. Other recent takings include the condemnation of several Wall Street buildings to expedite the expansion of the New York Stock Exchange, on which the exchange reneged, and the condemnation of a dozen businesses in Harlem to make way for a Home Depot.
To add insult to injury, the new private owners not only get someone else's property they invariably also get substantial state and local tax breaks, subsidies, and a bypass of the city's usual land use review procedures. The Ratner development in Brooklyn, for example, will receive something between $10 million and $1 billion in government subsidies (its estimate), and will bypass the standard public review processes required of all normal private development. But, of course, this is not normal private development, because Ratner's partner is the state of New Yorkthe Empire State Development Corporation, successor agency to the old Urban Development Corporation.
A SORRY PAST AND PERHAPS A SORRY FUTURE
Clearly the writing is on the wall: the city and the state intend to continue on this path of ever greater condemnations benefiting ever more important recipients. The only sure test any city has for controversial projects is the market. But when the market is undermined by government condemnation of private property combined with subsidies for the governmentally sponsored project the justification for a project is no longer economic demand but political favoritism. That was no way to restore neighborhoods during the terrible decades after World War II when urban renewal first reigned. And it's no way to restore neighborhoods today.
The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its decision in late May or early June. In the meantime, local enterprises hoping to use eminent domain will be weighing their options. Columbia University, for example, obliquely denies that it intends to use state condemnation powers to expedite its expansion in West Harlem, saying such things are up to the state. New Yorkers should be watching the New London case carefully. If New London loses, governmental abuse of eminent domain will be restricted. If it wins, New Yorkers will have only the local political processand electionsto halt a new wave of urban renewal.