Thursday, October 12, 2006

State Begins Conditions Study For M'ville Area Possible Blight Finding Would Allow Eminent Domain Use

Columbia Spectator
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State Begins Conditions Study For M'ville Area
Possible Blight Finding Would Allow Eminent Domain Use
By Erin Durkin
Issue date: 10/12/06 Section: News

New York state has initiated a study that could result in a blight finding for the area of Manhattanville where Columbia is planning to expand, officials confirmed Wednesday.The study, which is being conducted by Empire State Development, began in August. It is not a blight study-it is better defined as a neighborhood conditions study. But ESD spokeswoman Deborah Wetzel confirmed that "the study could support a finding of blight."

A blight finding would allow the state to use the power of eminent domain to forcibly buy property in the area from owners who have refused to sell.

"We are assessing the conditions in the area that is subject to the proposed expansion project. The current conditions of the project area and the project's impact will be important considerations for ESD's participation in the project," Wetzel said. "If there are blighted conditions the assessment will indicate that," adding that the possibility of blight was merely one of many conditions the study would examine.

Asked what decisions about participation in the expansion project ESD would make based on the study, Wetzel said, "Until the study's back I can't speculate on any of that."

Columbia has maintained that it wants to own all the property in its proposed expansion zone, which stretches from 125th to 133rd streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue, before proceeding with the construction of its new campus. The University says it hopes to acquire this land through negotiated settlements with property owners and views eminent domain as a last resort but is unwilling to take the option off the table. Columbia spokeswoman La-Verna Fountain said Wednesday that the University's position remained unchanged.

In August 2004, Columbia asked the state to consider using eminent domain to condemn property in Manhattanville, and paid the ESD $300,000 to cover any costs incurred in conjunction with its work on the expansion project. Fountain confirmed that the study the ESD is currently conducting is being funded with that money.

But she and Wetzel both said that the neighborhood conditions study had not been specifically requested by Columbia. "They're following through with their process now," Fountain said. "We stay out of it."

The question of whether blight exists in Manhattanville-and if so, who is to blame for it-has been hotly contested in the debate over the University's proposed expansion. The conditions necessary for a blight finding are not clearly defined by law, but conditions including overcrowding, deteriorating buildings, irregularity of plots, crime, lack of sanitation, fire hazards, pollution, and diverse land ownership that makes assembling tracts of property difficult have been among contributing factors in past cases. "We believe very strongly that Manhattanville is not a blighted neighborhood," said lawyer Norman Siegel, who represents property owners who have refused to sell to Columbia. "If we find out that any government agency makes a final determination that Manhattanville is blighted, we will give serious consideration to challenging that [in court]."

University officials have consistently avoided commenting on whether they think the area is blighted, but have referred to it as an area in need of economic development. Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin said last month: "Whether or not blight conditions exist will be a determination made by others, not by Columbia. I can observe in a non-legal sense significant job loss in that area over the last 20 to 30 years. I can observe some of the physical conditions that exist in the properties both that we bought and in the properties that we don't own. But I really am not an expert on blight and will not be the party determining whether or not it exists."

But some of Columbia's critics say that if the area is blighted, then the University, which owns 65 percent of the property in the expansion zone, must be responsible.

Community Board 9 Chairman Jordi Reyes-Montblanc said in an e-mail: "In any blight study hearing CB9 is prepared to testify that the current conditions in West Manhattanville are the direct result of Columbia University policies and actions which have resulted in the devastation of the area by taking out of the market industrial and commercial spaces that otherwise would be occupied and productive. The only properties within West Manhattanville that are in a 'distressed' and poorly maintained conditions are Columbia University properties."

"Blight is in the eye of the beholder. I do not see blight but I do see distressed properties deliberately left to deteriorate by Columbia University," he added.

Anne Whitman, who has refused to sell her business to Columbia and has been harshly critical of the University's expansion effort, agreed. "Their own properties have broken windows," she said. "If there were any other property owners in the neighborhood that let their property go like that, we'd all be getting fines." A CB9 committee passed a resolution last month calling on Columbia to "cease and desist its practices of discouraging or preventing new business activity from occurring in the property that it owns in Manhattanville," and to "physically maintain all of its properties within Community Board 9."

But Kasdin disputed the idea that the University had allowed its properties to fall into disrepair. He noted that almost all of the University-owned properties in the area have been acquired in the past three years, suggesting that any poor conditions pre-date the University's purchase. "I think as we're buying things we're rehabilitating them and that's clear," he said.

He also said the University makes a concerted effort to find new tenants for any of its properties that become vacant. "We believe it's in our interest and the community's interest to keep vital interim uses between the time we acquire a property and the time we need it vacant so that we can build university facilities. So our objective is to get tenants into all empty spaces that are safe and appropriate for occupancy," he said.

ESD's neighborhood conditions study has been contracted out to planning firms AKRF and Thornton Tomasetti.
They expect to finish the study in mid-fall.

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