Big Man Off Campus
By BILL PERKINS
Published: September 16, 2007
WE have an affordable housing crisis in New York City. And yet imagine what would happen if a publicly operated affordable housing agency got the go-ahead to seize a parcel of land on Columbia University’s campus to build apartments for low-income residents of Harlem.
Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But why? After all, eminent domain laws let government entities condemn private property for things that are a benefit to the public, like the construction of a highway or a water-treatment plant.
But what conventional opinion doesn’t find absurd is that Columbia University, a private entity, has contemplated invoking eminent domain to seize private property and expand its campus in West Harlem.
For now, Columbia insists eminent domain would have only a minimal role in its 17-acre growth plan since the university already holds title to most of the properties within its development footprint.
Such assurances, however, do little to ease public concern. In August, Community Board 9 voted to overwhelmingly oppose Columbia’s expansion plan unless the university disavows the possibility of using eminent domain among other conditions.
This brings me back to my original question: Why is the notion of taking Columbia’s land for a public use like affordable housing laughable while the inverse is viewed as wholly reasonable?
It all comes down to the distorted values of what constitutes “public good” as understood through our eminent domain laws. When powerful interests so twist and bend the law to match preconceived notions of “public benefit,” then the most reasonable proposal begins to seem the most absurd, and vice versa.
Perhaps the absurdity resides in the law itself, and how it is applied. Clearly we need to shift our thinking about the appropriate use of eminent domain. Unfortunately, we’ve become comfortable slanting the law in favor of the “big guy’s” interests over those of the “little guy.”
Take, for instance, the United States Supreme Court’s ruling two years ago in Kelo v. City of New London. The court ended up narrowly siding with New London, Conn., in its use of eminent domain to condemn houses and businesses for economic development purposes associated with a Pfizer research site nearby. Here, again, a public entity — New London — served as the armor for a land grab by private interests. And the court accepted it.
A similar kind of shell game is apparent in Columbia’s proposed expansion, with New York State potentially supplying the public shield. In 2004, Charles Gargano, then the chairman of New York’s Empire State Development Corporation, signed onto a letter by Columbia officials requesting that the corporation serve as the public agent of its West Harlem property condemnation plan.
I support discussions between Columbia and community leaders about ways the university’s expansion can benefit residents of Harlem, especially young people, through the construction of a community center or the development of student recruitment programs. But concessions like these can in no way justify the taking of private property.
Bill Perkins, a Democrat, is a state senator who represents Harlem.
From: "Anne Z. Whitman"
Subject: Re: Perkins in today nyt city section. HUGE!
To: "Reyes-Montblanc Jordi"
Kelo decision in New London is different from CU in NYC-New London put out an "RFP" and six developers submitted bids. CU is a NO BID, NO RFP development for private university. Kelo decision was wrong and taxpayers all over the US object to the injustice. So now it is left up to each state and NYS gets a grade "F" for eminent domain abuse by Institute for Justice. Bill Perkins is supporting ordinary tay paying citizens and representing the wishes of his constituents unlike many other politicians.