Tuesday, June 05, 2007

EMINENT DOMAIN ABUSE HAS THE POTENTIAL TO DISRUPT TENANTS AND NEIGHBORHOODS on a scale not seen since Robert Moses evicted 500,000 tenants



Tenant economic development.
Sun, 28 Apr 2002 10:20:46 -0400



If you're a New York City tenant, chances are you've had problems with your landlord and, from time to time you might wish for him or her to disappear. Strangely though, there are times you might wish to support your landlord's right to own and operate his property. You know about the anti-tenant DHCR and Housing Court, the fix-is-in-the-bag RGB and periodic renewals of the rent laws, but other forces are likely to be just as dangerous to your housing and quality of life.

Tenants need to start understanding how development, gentrification, real estate tax abatements, city bond financing, transportation infrastructure, among other issues, can destabilize residential neighborhoods, forcing out small businesses and long-time residents. It may not matter if rent regulation is still on the books because such forces result in both primary and seconday displacement, and are often disguised by schemes to "revitalize" or "restore" neighborhood through tourism, arts, sports and economic development.

One such tool is Eminent Domain. In the last few years, the favorite tool of Robert Moses (who displaced 500,000 tenants) has been making a comeback and is being abused as never before. Most people think Eminent Domain is when when private property is seized by government agencies to be used for public uses such as roads, schools and airports, but "public use" is being twisted into a strained version of "public interest" opening up the floodgates to almost anything and being handed over to other private owners. It's Robin Hood in reverse!

In Harlem, William Minnich is fighting the Empire State Development Corporation's attempt to take his family furniture factory away so proposed Home Depot can have a parking lot. Last year developer Douglas Durst asked Governor Pataki to condemn property adjoining his 6th Avenue and 42nd Street parcel (the owner refused to sell until after September 11th), simply so he could build a larger skyscraper. The Village of Port Chester is seeking Bill Brody's lumber yard in order to hand it over to a well-connected Stop 'n Shop developer. In New Rochelle, 34 homes, 29 businesses and two churches could be displaced to make room for an Ikea superstore. And in Manhattan, the New York Times seeks to displace local businesses so it can build its new skyscraper to promote its yuppified vision of Manhattan.

Perhaps the most bizarre instance of Eminent Domain is where the Lower East Side Tenement Museum seeks to acquire a building owned by long-time resident Lou Holtzman to expand the Museum. The problem is that Holtzman has 15 tenants who would be displaced by the move. And while the Museum has done good work in preserving the immigrant experience, it's move (like many arts groups that naively bite at developer's carrots), would hurt the very neighborhood whose values it seeks to extol.

Even more egregious is a plan proposed by Senator Charles Schumer and backed by City Hall to condemn large swaths of private property on Manhattan's West Side (24th to 42nd Streets, 9th Avenue to the Hudson), assemble the booty and hand it over to private developers (read "campaign contributors") for a new Central Business District or "CBD" -- the result would be skyscrapers going to the river and acres of office space for which there is no need. In the process it would destroy a low-rise mixed-use neighborhood providing valuable industrial infrastructure to Manhattan. Rudy's West Side Stadium is only a small part of this scheme, but the Olympics and a specious claim of the need to expand the Jacob Javits Convention Center are being used as "warm puppies" to attract support.

Such massive development plans would destroy what's left of Chelsea and Clinton, sharply increase traffic, increase commercial rents (forcing neighborhood stores out to be replaced by noisy nightclubs and the Gap), and step up residential landlord pressures to harass or buy-out tenants.

Taking property -- usually at a lower-than-market price and often without adequate notice -- leads to uncertainty of land use, community destabilization and leaves tenants at risk.

It may benefit developers and some wealthy suburbanites now seeing Manhattan as an urban Disneyland, but for those who put down roots, pay taxes and keep this town viable, it's likely they will be forced out. It does not help, of course, that the NYC Department of City Planning, Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields and many NYC Community Boards have forgone their planning function and operate as simple rubber-stamps for developer displacement schemes.

Eminent Domain is a tool that in some limited cases is useful to the larger city's interests. But in today's current climate, city and state governments are distorting it into a weapon and progressively taking larger potshots at New York City's neighborhoods. Development can be a very good thing when the agenda is about sustainable communities, not the developer's pocketbook.

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