March 3rd, 2010 — By — In News & Events

Nicole Gelinas: Eminent Domain as Central Planning

Unless it needs property to build a road, a subway line, a water-treatment plant, or a similar piece of truly public infrastructure—or unless a piece of land poses a clear and present danger to the public—the state should keep its hands off people’s property.

Nicole Gelinas writes in Eminent Domain as Central Planning: Wielding creative definitions of blight, New York runs roughshod over property rights and uproots viable neighborhoods (City Journal) about three high-profile cases of eminent-domain abuse in New York (Atlantic Yards, Columbia U expansion and Willets Point).  Gelinas discusses whether government  believing that “central planning  is superior to free-market competition” has abused its power of eminent domain and created blight by either defining sidewalk cracks, unpainted block walls and loose awning supports as “substandard” and “unsanitary” or by denying public infrastructure and resources to certain neighborhoods.

Some excerpts from Gelinas’s article:

In New York, this creative definition of blight is the new central-planning model. Consultants have also cited “underutilization” in West Harlem, where the city’s Economic Development Corporation wants to take land from private owners and hand it to Columbia University for an expansion project. Says Norman Siegel, who represents the owners: “A private property owner has the right to determine the best productive use of his property. It’s not a right to be ceded to any government.”

And in Queens, the Bloomberg administration is preparing a similar argument to grab swaths of Willets Point, an area adjacent to Citi Field that’s populated with auto-repair shops. The city’s recent “request for qualifications” from would-be developers drew a sharp response from the people who owned the land: “We . . . hold the most significant qualification of all: we own the properties. We are motivated to improve and use our own properties, consistent with the American free market system. We would have done so in spectacular fashion already, had the city upheld its end of the bargain by providing our neighborhood with essential services and infrastructure.” Instead, the city has done the opposite, letting streets disintegrate into ditches to bolster its blight finding. The perversity is astonishing: rather than doing its own job of maintaining public infrastructure and public safety, the government wants to do the private sector’s job—and is going about it by starving that private sector of public resources.

Eminent-domain abuse, dangerous though it is, is a symptom of a deeper problem: government officials’ belief that central planning is superior to free-market competition. That’s what New York has decided in each of its current eminent-domain cases. In Brooklyn, high-rise towers and an arena are better than a historic low-rise neighborhood; in Harlem, an elite university’s expansion project is better than continued private investment; and in Willets Point, Queens, almost anything is better than grubby body shops.

See our previous posts about Atlantic Yards here, Columbia here and Willets Point here.   For a more detailed analysis of Atlantic Yards, see Norman Oder’s blog, Atlantic Yards Report.  And, Robert Thomas discusses the court decision striking the use of eminent domain for Columbia’s expansion on his Inverse Condemnation blog here.

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