Wading into yet another contentious national debate, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg came out vigorously yesterday in support of the government's right to seize property by eminent domain, and said Congressional attempts to limit those powers would have dire consequences for the nation's cities.
His remarks come in the wake of a 2005 Supreme Court decision establishing the right of localities to seize properties for economic development projects. That ruling set off a firestorm that has spread across the country and in New York, where the potential use of eminent domain has drawn opposition in such projects as the proposed Atlantic Yards complex in Brooklyn.
"You would never build any big thing any place in any big city in this country if you didn't have the power of eminent domain," Mr. Bloomberg said, speaking at a ground-breaking ceremony in Times Square, which was redeveloped in part through government condemnation of private property. "You wouldn't have a job, neither would anybody else standing here today. None of us would."
Of late, Mr. Bloomberg has ramped up efforts to influence a range of national policy issues including immigration and gun control. But on this issue he is taking a position that could be at odds with the feelings of New Yorkers wary of development or suspicious of government efforts to seize private property.
The mayor is most concerned that the pending legislation would cut off all federal economic development funds to state or local governments for up to two years if they use eminent domain in private development projects. Bloomberg administration officials warned that passage of the bill in Congress could, at a minimum, mean the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars and almost 100,000 jobs for the city.
"There are some in Albany and Washington," Mr. Bloomberg said, who do not "appreciate the crucial importance of eminent domain to our ability to shape our own future. They mistakenly equate it with an abuse of government power, and ignore the benefits that come to us all from responsible development of formerly blighted areas."
The bill, passed last year by the House of Representatives and now pending in the Senate, is one of many federal and state measures aimed at constraining the government's power to seize private property that have been proposed or adopted in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.
Since the ruling, which upheld the authority of New London, Conn., to condemn homes to allow for private redevelopment, conservative and liberal members of Congress have joined together to fashion new federal limits on eminent domain seizures. At the same time, lawmakers in nearly every state have advanced bills and amendments, addressing an issue that is often emotionally fraught among their constituents.
"The vast, overwhelming majority of Americans are opposed to using eminent domain," said Dana Berliner, a senior lawyer at the Institute for Justice, a leading advocate for curtailing its use.
"There's still in the United States a very strong ethic that you work hard so that some day you or your children can own a home," she said, adding that using eminent domain for private development makes a mockery of those aspirations.
"The only people who are really supporting it are government, planners and the developers that take advantage of eminent domain," she said.
In New York, for example, the proposed use of eminent domain by the developer Forest City Ratner to bring a basketball arena and a swath of residential, office and commercial towers to the Atlantic Terminal area touched off fierce opposition, especially in surrounding neighborhoods.
The concept, though, proved unpopular elsewhere as well. A New York Times poll in April 2004 found that only 18 percent of city residents favored the construction of a new basketball arena in Brooklyn it if it required the demolition of homes and businesses. (Forest City Ratner is the development partner of The New York Times Company in building its new Midtown headquarters, a project that itself involved government condemnation of private property.)
To the Bloomberg administration, however, the wheels of economic development would grind to a halt without the use of eminent domain. Low-cost housing developments like the Nehemiah homes in East New York, Brooklyn, and Melrose Commons in the Bronx would not have been built and Times Square would remain "the poster child for a seedy, dangerous, unattractive, porno-laced place," Mr. Bloomberg said.
City officials also argue that New York State law protects property owners from abusive uses of eminent domain because it requires property to be designated as a blight before it can be seized for private development and because people have access to the courts. But many critics dismiss that argument.
"New York's blight designation is a joke," Ms. Berliner said. "You can call anything in the state blighted under New York's definition."
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com