Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Draft Plan Provides for Eminent Domain - Columbia Document Anticipates Blight Finding for Manhattanville Area; Study Incomplete

Columbia Spectator

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Draft Plan Provides for Eminent Domain
Columbia Document Anticipates Blight Finding for Manhattanville Area; Study Incomplete

By Erin Durkin and Anna Phillips
Issue date: 1/31/07 Section: News
[Click to enlarge]

Lawyers for Columbia have drafted a plan for the University's proposed Manhattanville expansion, which anticipates that the area will be declared blighted and provides for the use of eminent domain to acquire property.

The draft of the document, known as a General Project Plan, was written by Kramer Levin, a law firm employed by Columbia, and submitted to the Empire State Development Corporation, a state authority that has the power to use eminent domain.

Columbia has maintained that it hopes to acquire all the properties in its Manhattanville expansion zone, which stretches from 125th to 133rd streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue, by negotiation with owners, but it has refused to take the option of eminent domain off the table. Though the document does not represent a departure from that position, it is the clearest evidence to date of how far preparations for eminent domain use have advanced.

"Parcels which Columbia is unable to purchase would be acquired by ESDC through the exercise of the power of eminent domain," states the plan, obtained by Spectator under the Freedom of Information Law.

The development corporation is currently conducting a Columbia-funded study that could result in a finding of blight for Manhattanville, but such a determination has not yet been reached.
"The blight study is still underway," said ESDC spokesman A.J. Carter, Journalism '73, adding that he did not know when it would be completed.

But the draft GPP presumes that a blight finding will be forthcoming.

"ESDC ... makes the findings set forth below ... That the area in which the project is to be located is a substandard or unsanitary area, or is in danger of becoming a substandard or unsanitary area and tends to impair or arrest the sound growth and development of the municipality," it states.

The document, referring to the still unfinished study, reads: "The Community Impact Study concluded that the Project Site is characterized by blighted conditions that are unlikely to be removed without public action. [to be completed based on Community Impact Study] The Community Impact Study concluded that the Project would remove these blighted conditions.

"The conditions necessary for a blight finding are not clearly defined by law, but 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.

Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin said that it was standard procedure for a developer to prepare a General Project Plan and that the University's lawyers had drafted it before the completion of the blight study in the interest of time. "If upon completion of a blight study there were a determination by ESDC that no blight exists, that provision ... would be dropped," he said.

"It's written on a presumption of a state of facts," Kasdin said. "To the extent that the facts change or the presumptions change over time, the drafts are altered."

He said that the draft GPP, which is dated Sept. 22, reflected the "notion that was held in September of what the appropriate arguments would be." He added, "It's important to note, however, that irrespective of what a party seeking assistance from ESDC argues, ESDC exercises totally independent judgment ... to determine whether or not the arguments that are being made are persuasive."

Carter agreed. "It's a process that evolves over time," he said. "There's nothing unusual about this."

Though Columbia and ESDC referred to it as standard procedure, Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney who represents several Manhattanville business owners who have refused to sell to Columbia, said that Columbia's role in preparing the GPP raised doubts about ESDC's impartiality. "It puts into question the role of the ESDC. Are they there to be the neutral monitor of the process and a neutral decision maker? Or alternatively, are they a facilitator for the developer?" he said.

He said that the preparation of a plan that assumes a blight finding before such a determination has been made was "extremely objectionable."

"The ESDC should not be prejudging anything at this state of the process," he said, adding that he and his clients would "vigorously challenge" a blight finding, in court if necessary. "The West Harlem and Manhattanville community is not blighted," he said.

"This is a study that's being done for Columbia's benefit," said Community Board 9 Chairman Jordi Reyes-Montblanc. "I think it's totally beneath contempt. The integrity of Columbia is really put into question by stooping to something like this. This is not the Columbia we all know and admire and fight with every so often."

In addition to the redevelopment of a blighted area, the GPP points to civic improvement as a rationale for eminent domain, saying that Columbia's new campus would fill a need in the area for educational, cultural, recreational, community, municipal, or public service facilities. It further says that the property would be acquired in stages within 10 years of the date that ESDC is entitled to go forward with the eminent domain proceedings. The cost of acquiring the properties would be paid by Columbia.Before the GPP could be implemented, it would have to be adopted by ESDC, go through a process of public review, and receive final approval from the agency.

In addition to the eminent domain provisions, the GPP lays out details of relocation plans for tenants who live in several apartment buildings in Manhattanville, all of whom would be displaced by the expansion project. "All existing residential occupants within the Project Site who are legally occupying a residential dwelling unit ... would, providing they remain in good standing under their occupancy agreements, be relocated to decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings, within the boundaries of Manhattan Community Board 9 or in other areas not generally less desirable, at rents or prices within the financial means of the displaced person(s)," it states.

Each household would receive a one-time $5,000 payment to assist with relocation and to "compensate occupants for the inconvenience of having to move, and to encourage them to vacate their units as quickly as possible."

An earlier draft of the plan lays out similar provisions for commercial tenants, saying that they will receive a re-establishment payment capped at $20,000. These provisions were deleted in the subsequent draft. A memo to ESDC from Kramer Levin says, "We need to discuss commercial relocation with you further." Kasdin said he did not know why the provisions were deleted.

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