CU Paving Way For Eminent Domain Use: Columbia (University) Spectator, 4/15/05

Letter to State Requests Dialogue About Possible Condemnation, CU Provides $300,000

By Jimmy Vielkind and Erin Durkin

Columbia officials have requested that the state consider condemning property in West Harlem for the University’s Manhattanville expansion plan and have made a payment of $300,000 to cover the state’s legal fees.

The request was made in a letter sent last summer to the Empire State Development Corporation, a state authority that facilitates development projects and can condemn property for private developers using eminent domain, and signed by Columbia’s Deputy General Counsel Howard Jacobson. Spectator obtained the letter under the Freedom of Information Law.

While the six-page letter is only a preliminary agreement between Columbia and ESDC and contains no specific promises to condemn property, it is the clearest expression to date of the possibility that eminent domain, the ability of government to forcibly buy property for “public use,” may be used for Columbia’s expansion and has raised concerns about how open the University has been in its dealings with the community.

“Columbia has requested that the ... Empire State Development Corporation, subject to applicable law, consider the condemnation of portions of the Property not under Columbia Control and the transfer of title by deed, subject to appropriate restrictions, to facilitate development by Columbia of facilities to be used for academic, administrative, student and faculty residences, retail, parking, on-site energy, open space, a hotel and other related or ancillary uses and public amenities currently under discussion. This letter agreement sets forth the agreement of Columbia to pay certain costs to the extent incurred by ESDC in connection with the Project,” the letter states.

The document also contains assurances that Columbia will assume liability for any lawsuits brought against ESDC in their work, which was defined in the letter as “drafting, reviewing and/or negotiating ... restrictive deeds and land acquisition and disposition agreement(s) between ESDC and Columbia, and necessary or appropriate documents related thereto.”

University officials downplayed the significance of the agreement and explained that Columbia’s communication with ESDC is a necessary part of any development of the scope of the planned Manhattanville project.

“We have said repeatedly that the decision [to use eminent domain] is the state’s, and we are not prepared to take the option off the table. Signing this reimbursement letter was a necessary step to preserve the option,” said Liz Golden, a University spokeswoman.

The letter stipulates that Columbia will pay ESDC $300,000 to cover any costs incurred in conjunction with its work on the expansion project, including the retention of condemnation counsel. University officials and ESDC both confirmed that the payment had been made. The letter also states that if the balance of the account in which the payment was placed drops below $100,000, ESDC will request additional funds. University officials said that this scenario has not yet taken place, meaning that ESDC has spent no more than $200,000 investigating possible condemnation in Manhattanville.

The last paragraph of the letter states, “If the foregoing accurately sets forth our understanding, kindly sign two of the enclosed copies of this letter agreement in the space set forth below, ... whereupon this letter agreement shall become a binding agreement.” The space below is signed by Charles Gargano, chairman and chief executive officer of ESDC.

Chapin Fay, an ESDC spokesman, confirmed that the letter represented a legal agreement between the University and the authority. He emphasized, however, that it was preliminary.

“Columbia University has asked ESDC to consider assisting in the University’s proposed expansion, which may include the use of eminent domain,” he said. “ESDC is currently evaluating the proposal and determining whether any ESDC assistance might be appropriate ... No commitment has been made regarding any potential ESDC actions.”

In order for any above-ground condemnation to go forward, property must be declared “blighted” under the law as determined by an independent blight study. Such a study was not mentioned in the letter and University officials denied they had asked for one to be conducted.

Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chairman of Community Board 9, said he was not surprised to learn that the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville was under consideration. He said he thought that any such move would take place in the future and that he had not been informed that Columbia had initiated communications with ESDC.

“What is a surprise is that it has actually been contracted with ESDC, that they have actually paid $300,000 to ESDC, and that Mr. Gargano, without even deigning to consult with the community, has signed this agreement,” he said.

Reyes-Montblanc said that the relationship between the University and the community would be affected by what he called “a very destructive action by Columbia.”

“I’m disappointed at Columbia, and I’m highly pissed off at ESDC,” he said. “Now we cannot trust either one.”

Fay called Reyes-Montblanc’s criticisms “unfounded,” noting there is “a very public process involved when we get to that point.”

“We are not at that point yet, and no commitment or decision has been made other than to consider a proposal,” he said.

Golden said that the letter’s disclosure would not change Columbia’s standing while working with community members and groups.

“The issue of condemnation is not new and we will continue to keep the community informed about our proposed actions in Manhattanville,” she said. “In any ongoing relationship, there are going to be areas of agreement and sometimes areas of disagreement. Our first priority is to continue to negotiate the purchase of properties in a way that addresses the needs of individual owners and meets the University’s objectives.”

Susan Russell, chief of staff to City Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Washington Heights), said the Councilman was disturbed that Columbia had initiated communication about condemnation without informing the community. She said that, after reading the letter, he had called Columbia Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin to express his concerns.

“He [Jackson] didn’t know that Columbia had done this and he is disappointed that the Community Board did not know about this, because he thought that there would be more openness and discussion in this process,” Russell said.

“They keep representing to the community that they don’t want to go in this direction, and then we find out about this document,” she said, adding that Jackson “hopes there will be more transparency on Columbia’s part” and “expects much better going forward.”

Councilman Jackson, whose district includes the affected area, is “absolutely opposed” to the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville.

“We do expect that people will react strongly to this,” Russel said.

Reyes-Montblanc also warned that the letter would have significant impact.

“Those who know me know that there will be some kind of reaction, and it will not be pretty,” he said.

Columbia Spectator: www.columbiaspectator.com


Resistance to eminent domain grows in city: Atlanticville (Long Branch NJ), 4/13/05

Redevelopment gives rise to residents’ group, business alliance

By Christine Varno

Plans to redevelop the Long Branch oceanfront and Broadway areas are moving ahead, while more residents join together to fight the loss of their properties through eminent domain.

This week, it was announced that a group is forming for owners of commercial properties who are concerned about their properties in the city’s redevelopment zones.

Against this backdrop of growing advocacy, the city is pushing ahead with redevelopment plans and last week met with developers who presented plans for the Broadway triangle, or gateway, zone.

Last Sunday, the Beachfront South Coalition, formed just last month, met for the second time to discuss the next steps in fighting what they say is an abuse of eminent domain, according to coalition founder Harold Bobrow.

“The meeting went well,” Bobrow said. “We had about 12 people attend, and some of them were new faces.

“Everybody is showing up because we are all concerned about what is going on in [Long Branch].”

At the meeting, Ray Miller Jr., of Coach Classics on South Broadway, announced plans to form the Long Branch Retail Business Alliance Against Eminent Domain specifically for owners of businesses who are concerned that their properties will be taken through eminent domain.

Miller said Monday that the new business alliance will be open to business owners in any of the redevelopment zones. The alliance’s first meeting will be held on Sunday, April 24, at Coach Classics beginning at 1 p.m.

He said plans are to join forces with MTOTSA and Beachfront South to resist the taking of properties through eminent domain.

The redevelopment zone where Bobrow and his wife live, Beachfront South, is a 12-acre tract of land that extends from Bath Avenue to Morris Avenue, between Ocean Boulevard and Ocean Avenue.

In August, K. Hovnanian Shore Acquisitions, Middletown, was designated as the redeveloper of the zone, and plans call for razing the existing neighborhood of approximately 30 properties and constructing a $300 million project.

The Beachfront South Coalition is the second group of residents living within one of the city’s six redevelopment zones to join together to fight eminent domain.

The first group, MTOTSA — residents of Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue — was formed over a year ago by people living in the Beachfront North, phase II, redevelopment zone.

That area is a three-street neighborhood comprised of 36 properties that is slated for eminent domain. Plans call for the area to be bulldozed and replaced with upscale condominiums.

MTOTSA has hired attorney Peter H. Wegener, of Lakewood, to represent the group in opposing the taking of their properties by the city through eminent domain.

A member of MTOTSA attended the Beachfront South meeting as did residents from other redevelopment zones.

“There were people here from other city redevelopment zones,” Bobrow said. “I think people want to see what we are doing and find out what they can do.”

“It will be for businesses in the redevelopment zones that are worried about the taking of their properties by the city,” according to Bobrow, who said that was how Miller explained the new coalition at the Beachfront South meeting, which was closed to the press.

The Broadway Arts and Entertainment Zone extends 72 acres from Second Avenue west to the railroad tracks, and on Nov. 9, Broadway Arts LLC were declared potential developers for 9 acres of the zone, from Second Avenue to Memorial Avenue, and from Union Avenue to the north and Belmont Avenue to the south.

The city is also moving forward with redevelopment plans on the 40 acres in the Broadway Arts and Entertainment Zone, known as the Broadway Gateway sector.

On April 7, Howard Woolley, city business administrator; Pratap Talwar, city planner; and other city officials met with some 10 to 11 potential developers who are interested in developing the Broadway Gateway sector, which extends from Chelsea to Cooper Avenue, between Second Avenue and Ocean Boulevard.

“We talked about the developers projects to get more information so we can move further with the redevelopment project,” Woolley said.

Atlanticville: http://atlanticville.gmnews.com


Hotel developer puts in bid for city block: Daily Nebraskan (Univ of Nebraska, Lincoln), 4/12/05

By Joel Gehringer

Just south of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a single city block’s future sits in limbo.

Hotel developer John Q. Hammons, who owns 44 hotels nationwide, wants to build a new hotel on the corner of 17th and Q streets as part of Lincoln’s Antelope Valley Project.

But the business owners on that block, including those who run Samurai Sam’s Teriyaki Grill and Miracle Mile Motors, don’t want to give it up, and other developers might give him a run for his money.

Hammons announced his wish to build a hotel in December 2004. The four-story, 150-room hotel would serve researchers and visitors to UNL with suites designed for extended stays.

“This is a great fit into the Antelope Valley Project,” said Roger Larson, a member of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission. “It’s the perfect example of how public investment fits in perfectly with private investment.”

But not everyone was sold.

The commission’s decision to recommend seizure of the land made current business owners uneasy.

The commission suggested the city take the land through eminent domain – the city’s ability to force the sale of private land if the sale is deemed necessary for city development.

Businesses owners, including those who run Samurai Sam’s Teriyaki Grill and Miracle Mile Motors, were unavailable for comment Monday.

The businesses feared the City Council would approve the use of eminent domain to justify buying and demolishing their property.

However, when the Lincoln City Council approved plans for building the hotel in February, Mayor Coleen Seng offered an amendment.

The amendment allowed landowners in the area to negotiate sale of their land with Hammons, but said that if an agreement could not be reached, another proposal would come before the council asking for the enforcement of eminent domain.

The council adopted the amendment and handed landowners a temporary victory.

Currently, the city waits while Hammons and the business owners try to come to agreement.

But Larson said the amendment would be enforced if necessary.

“Most of the owners are civic-minded enough that they are willing to be worked with,” Larson said. “But if an agreement isn’t reached, we will take it to the City Council again, and they will then be able to invoke eminent domain.”

City Councilman Ken Svoboda said the hotel is important to the growth of Lincoln and the future of the Antelope Valley Project. He said he wants to see the hotel built, but also wants a deal that would be fair to all parties.

“The city has a huge role in that we can tell Mr. Hammons, ‘If you really want to stay here, you need to work something out,’ ” Svoboda said. “Between the (City Council, the landowners and Hammons), I think we can work something out.”

Hammons has expressed interest in the redevelopment of Lincoln, Larson said.

“He’s a very public-minded person,” Larson said. “He likes Lincoln and he wants to expand his investments here.”

Hammons even has expressed interest in building another, larger hotel and contributing financially if Lincoln plans to build a new arena and convention center in the Haymarket area, Larson said.

“I know he has alluded to the fact that (another hotel and arena) is important to him, and he has seriously considered being involved.”

But recently, a fourth party entered the battle for the block. Marriott, which owns the Cornhusker Hotel, plans to bid for building rights to the hotel.

Larson said he fears Hammons would reconsider investing in the city if he could not secure the property himself.

“If he was denied the 17th and Q property, he would probably lose some of his interest in Lincoln,” Larson said.

But Svoboda doesn’t think losing the land to landowners or other bidding hotel owners would deter Hammons.

“He knows competition, and that’ll make him work that much harder,” Svoboda said.

Daily Nebraskan: www.dailynebraskan.com


Neighbors wary of UNR expansion: Reno (NV) Gazette-Journal, 4/10/05

By Lenita Powers

A proposed master plan that would allow the University of Nevada, Reno to triple in size is being blasted by opponents as “the biggest land grab in the history of the city,” that would devalue area homes and remove hundreds of thousands of dollars from the tax base.

Under the proposed 50-year plan, the most ambitious since the university was founded in 1874, the campus would expand from its current 290 acres to 860 acres. Private interests would own and develop some of that land for commercial and residential use, university officials said. The expansion, those officials say, will be driven by enrollment that is projected to increase 43 percent in the next decade.

Despite assurances the university will acquire land for expansion “only from willing sellers,” business and homeowners fear the mere threat of eminent domain will cause neighborhoods to deteriorate and property values to plummet. That will allow the university to gobble up their land at low prices, they say.

University and city officials contend the tax base will grow by enhancing development in the surrounding area, and a top UNR administrator has promised eminent domain would not be used to force property owners to sell.

John Buffa, who lives on Evans Avenue just east of the university, isn’t convinced. He said residents and business owners won’t invest in property improvements under the shadow of eminent domain.

“What the university has magnanimously proposed to do is pay fair market value, but with this cloud, the prices will go down,” he said. “And given the real estate market these days, there’s nowhere to go.”

Buffa said he paid $90,000 for the four-bedroom, two-bath house he and his wife, Ruth, have lived in for 20 years. If the university’s expansion causes prices to drop, Buffa said he and other homeowners will have a hard time finding comparable housing they can afford.

“The university wants to take everything from Sierra Street over east to Sutro, and they’re eventually going to push one hell of a lot of people out of here,” he said.

“There’s a large immigrant population on Valley Road, and that’s been completely overlooked. But the university is the 800-pound gorilla, and the city and planning commission seem to be falling all over themselves to do what they want.”

The Reno City Council is scheduled to consider adopting the UNR Regional Center Plan at 6 p.m. during its April 27 meeting. If approved, the existing zoning in the area would remain as it currently is until the university acquires the land. Then each parcel automatically would be rezoned as is called for in the plan.

The university’s promise not to use eminent domain needs to be included in writing as part of the plan if city council approves it, said Frankie Sue Del Papa, a resident of the neighborhood west of UNR that will be included in the plan.

“I’ve lived here since 1979 and I spent $115,000 for a major addition in 1993,” said Del Papa, Nevada’s former attorney general. “My concern is there should be greater protection for existing homeowners, too. This rezoning allows for high-density development.”

John Frederick, UNR’s provost and executive vice president, said the overlay district being proposed for the university provides the zoning guide to implement its expansion plans.

“Right now, every time we buy a piece of property and want to change the use, we have to go through an expensive and time-consuming process to get rezoning,” Frederick said. “What the city is trying to do with us is make the process more seamless and easier as we continue to grow.”

The Board of Regents, which oversees Nevada’s higher education system, still would have to approve the purchase of each property, he said.

The Reno Planning Commission voted 5-1 at its March 16 meeting to recommend the city adopt the plan subject to a regional planning review and on the condition the university provide an update every three years on how the plan is progressing.

Darrin Georgeson, the planning commission member who cast the lone vote against the plan, objected to the part called the “main gateway,” which is included in the first phase of development.

It would replace businesses and homes in a five-block-long area along Ninth Street and south to Interstate 80 with what UNR’s plan calls “a sweeping lawn, serving as the symbolic entrance to the campus.”

Georgeson said the university’s Ninth Street entrance already has the grassy Quad and is fronted by the large lawn area known as the Manzanita Bowl.

“I don’t see how education will benefit by an open space area that’s the size of nine to 10 football fields,” he said. “It’s not compatible, and it’s going to ruin that area.”

Part of the area the “gateway” would replace includes North Center Street and the house built in 1895 where Fred Atcheson grew up and which is still his home.

Atcheson, a Reno attorney who owns several properties in the area as well as the popular Record Street CafĂ©, thinks the university’s claim that it wants a huge, grassy entrance is “a ruse” to downgrade the zoning in the area to acquire surrounding property more cheaply.

“This is one of the biggest inverse condemnation projects that ever occurred in Reno,” he said. “Usually if you rezone property, you rezone it up. They don’t have to keep it open space because their master plan allows them to change it at will and use it for want they want.”

UNR’s 50-year plan is broken into three phases, which are referred to as Horizons 1, 2 and 3. The “gateway” project is among those in the first phase, which is expected to occur between 2012 and 2016.

Ron Cobb, chairman of the city’s planning commission, praised the university’s foresight, saying he wished that such long-range planning had been done for the fast-growing south Reno area.

But Atcheson said the city has not even done an analysis of how much it will cost Reno when his and other business owners’ and homeowners’ properties are taken off the tax rolls.

“We have more than 60 parcels, not including residential motels, that will come off the property rolls and, in some cases, destroy a thousand years of history in the process,” he said.

John Hester, Reno’s director of community development, acknowledged that an analysis was not done to determine how much money the city would lose after land is acquired by the university, which is a state-owned institution and does not pay property taxes.

“The city of Reno benefits from having the university, probably more than from residential property taxes,” he said. “For example, if you have some land developed for biotechnical programs or health science, that brings in related businesses that use those and that generate high-paying jobs.”

A Realtor in Berkeley, Calif., who was contacted by the Reno Gazette-Journal, said the value of property around a university generally increases, particularly for commercially zoned sites.

“Residential prices also do well because you have a high demand for housing for students, professors and staff,” said Bill Grimason, assistant manager at Remax Executive in Berkeley, where the University of California, Berkeley is located.

“I think it would be a positive thing as part of the real estate values, but there will be isolated instances that would be negative for some people,” he said.

“No one wants to be next to a fraternity or a 10-story dormitory if they live in a quiet neighborhood. So, overall, it will be good for the city and the area, but there will be more density and more people, and some people will be impacted negatively.”

UNR’s provost insists the university will not use eminent domain nor try to exercise eminent domain through the Board of Regents.

“We’re not even going to ask for it,” Frederick said. “Yes, that’s a promise.”

Frederick also denies the university is trying to down-zone the area south of the campus as open space as a ploy to get surrounding property cheaply and then develop that open space later.

“When you come off (Interstate 80), you don’t see the university, you see some run-down things,” he said. “You don’t get a very good impression coming up Center Street, and it’s not very good coming up Virginia Street, either.”

The idea is to create an open space that is welcoming to students and visitors, he said.

“There’s no hidden agenda,” Frederick said. “And the assumption is that it’s all going to be grass. We have been stressing high-desert vegetation. Green space can be a lot of things and it doesn’t have to be all solid grass.”

Whatever it is, it will replace the University Preschool, which cares for about 85 children and is housed in a home that is on the Nevada and Reno Registers of Historic Places.

Lorrie Casalta owns the historic house at 847 N. Center St. that was built in 1887. She and her husband bought it in 1998 for $135,000 and spent $144,000 to remodel it and turn part of it into a preschool.

When Casalta first heard about UNR’s master plan a year ago, she discussed selling it to the university, which she said provided an insight into UNR’s idea of fair market value.

“They appraised it at $250,000, which is less than what it was worth in 1999,” she said. “So this is the only property I know of in Reno and Sparks that has gone down in value. They’re so bent on decreasing the value of these properties, and it’s just a blatant attempt to steal these properties at below-market value.”

UNR’s provost counters with the amount the university paid for a home in the Ninth Street area that shows the opposite is true.

“We know of at least one recent example where we paid $70,000 more than a competing buyer,” Frederick said. “And did we swoop in with eminent domain? No one has to sell if the price isn’t right.”

Reno Gazette-Journal: www.rgj.com


Judge blocks action on Cramer Hill project: Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer, 4/9/05

An injunction barred Camden's use of eminent domain to seize property for redevelopment until a case is resolved

By Dwight Ott

Camden's [NJ] $1.2 billion revitalization effort in Cramer Hill was dealt an unexpected setback yesterday when a judge temporarily blocked city officials from using eminent domain to acquire property until a court challenge is settled.

Attorneys for more than 200 Cramer Hill residents had petitioned Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando to block all or part of the Cramer Hill redevelopment plan until their original court case is settled. The residents argued that the city should not act until the outcome of their legal challenge, filed nine months ago.

The suit, scheduled to be heard in late June, contends that the city overstepped its legal authority in approving the plan, which includes relocating as many as 1,200 families.

Orlando agreed yesterday that the city should wait until the case is resolved before moving forward to acquire 72 properties needed to build affordable housing.

"I find the overriding theme is eminent domain," Orlando said yesterday. He called the petition for an injunction an effort to "stop government from moving ahead with its awesome powers of eminent domain."

"Hopefully," he said, "it will be decided in the next few months."

Orlando added that he would allow the city to proceed with making sales deals with residents who were willing to move voluntarily.

"I will allow the city to do appraisals," he said.

The 10-year revitalization plan announced last year by Cherokee Investment Partners of Raleigh, N.C., calls for construction of 6,000 houses, 500,000 square feet of retail space, a marina, and an 18-hole golf course in Cramer Hill. Officials tout the plan as a key component of the troubled city's ongoing state-funded overhaul.

Though the city was hit last July by the first lawsuit, officials tried to proceed with their plans to condemn the 72 Cramer Hill properties. Those properties were targeted for acquisition, and the city argued that it had the right to proceed under the Fair Housing Act rather than under the court-challenged redevelopment plan.

But Olga Pomar and David Rammler, two South Jersey Legal Services lawyers representing the residents, argued that this was an improper effort by the city to circumvent their lawsuit. They said their clients would be dealt irreparable harm if the city were allowed to proceed.

Orlando agreed. "These 72 units form an integral part of the plan and can't be looked at in isolation," he said.

Pomar was thrilled.

"It's very significant," she said. "The city's actions have caused incredible stress to my clients... . I'm happy I can tell them they don't have to worry about anything until the court case is over."

Councilman Ali Sloan El, a candidate for mayor who has argued that the revitalization effort is a dictatorship, agreed.

"Everything is going downhill for them [officials who favor the plan]... They came in with eight attorneys vs. two and were whipped."

But the city's state-appointed chief operating officer, Melvin R. "Randy" Primas Jr., said he did not view the decision as a major setback.

"The judge will hear the case in June," he said. "We can go forward with the property owners who want to sell. On one of the parcels, nearly all of the owners have agreed to the prices."

Primas said the city had realized that sooner or later there would be an injunction as a part of the court case. "This was not unanticipated."

The Philadelphia Inquirer: www.philly.com