Unusual Eminent Domain Action at CUNY: New York NY Sun, 5/11/07

By Eliot Brown

An unusual eminent domain dispute between two semi-public entities is brewing at the City University of New York's (CUNY) City College campus, where the university wants to construct two new science buildings next to a highly regarded biological research center. In order to build, the university is seeking to use its power of condemnation to void a provision of a lease, an action the biology center strongly protests.

As part of a plan to create a state-of-the-art science corridor on the campus, CUNY wants to erect two new research and teaching buildings just adjacent to the New York Structural Biology Center, a nonprofit, federally funded medical research facility that leases its land from the university.

The construction would create vibrations that would render the sensitive research technology at the biology center unusable, likely for a period of more than six months. A provision in the lease specifically bars CUNY from disrupting the operations, and as such, the university is currently seeking permission from the state to use eminent domain to nullify that provision, allowing it to go forward with the construction.

"It's a very bizarre use of eminent domain and not very collegial," the chief operating officer at the biology center, Willa Appel, said.

By disrupting the operations, Ms. Appel said the university would threaten millions of dollars in grants that the center has received, all with the expectation that research would not be completed within a set timeframe.

"The whole grant pipeline on which the research depends will be severely interrupted," Ms. Appel said.

While the university acknowledges the disruption and would compensate the biology center, its vice chancellor for academic affairs, Selma Botman, said the greater good that would come from the new buildings would outweigh the temporary disruption.

"There is a real difference between a few months of temporary hiatus and the ability to offer CUNY students, most of whom come from modest families and are from underrepresented groups, a world-class scientific education," Ms. Botman said.

A professor at Brooklyn Law School, David Reiss, said that while CUNY, as a government entity, has the power to invoke eminent domain, its decision to nullify this small portion of the lease is unusual. It seems that the university "is condemning something tiny that makes the entire rest of the interests of the scientific institute completely useless," Mr. Reiss said.

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