Shedding Blight - Condemning Condemnation: Brooklyn NY Downtown Star, 7/5/07

By Shane Miller

Several groups fighting the use of eminent domain joined together for a rally on the steps of City Hall last week, charging that the seizure of private land in New York City is no longer an extraordinary step to further public projects, but rather a matter of public policy meant to further large private development.

The rally was organized primarily by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), which is fighting the use of eminent domain in the Forest City Ratner arena project in Prospect Heights. It also brought together residents facing the loss of their homes in Harlem due to a planned expansion of Columbia University, as well as entrepreneurs from Willets Point in Queens, who are facing a similar fate with regard to their businesses. The rally officially marked the debut of the citywide coalition New Yorkers Against Eminent Domain Abuse.

"The mayor is fond of saying, 'we can't let one guy stand in the way of development,'" said Dan Goldstein of DDDB, whose home is in the proposed arena's footprint. "Well, we're not one guy."

Goldstein argued that the city is increasingly using eminent domain to advance large, for-profit private developments.

"The city should only use eminent domain as a last resort," he said. "Continually, however, it is their first resort when assembling land for well-connected developers."

He added that whether or not the city actually uses eminent domain to seize land, it was using the possibility of that process to scare landowners.

"The possibility that their land could be seized compels property owners to sell," he said.

Simeon Bankhoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, agreed. "It isn't just the use of eminent domain," he said. "It is the threat of eminent domain hanging over us like some mythical beast waiting to swoop in."

At the heart of the issue is the definition of "blight," a subjective term that has become the primary justification for the use of eminent domain.

"What's the definition of blight?" deadpanned Goldstein. "Yours."

Neighborhoods where the seizure of private property through eminent domain is being considered have all been declared blighted, or in a state of extreme disrepair and an economic drain on the city coffers. Despite Brooklyn's booming real estate resurgence, the area around the proposed arena has been declared blighted, as has Willets Point in Queens, where the term blight has been most readily applied.

"For 30 years we have been telling the city how valuable Willets Point is," said Dan Scully of the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association. "For 30 years they have ignored us, because they have always had a better plan.

Willets Point, or the Iron Triangle as it is sometimes informally known, is a gritty 40-plus acre tract of land that sits just across the street from where a new stadium is rising for the New York Mets. It is home to over 200 businesses - most of which are related to the auto repair industry, but not all - and one resident.

The city hopes to transform Willets Point into a mixed-use community, complete with housing, office and retail space, and a convention center. It will be a tall order considering the area is in a state of environmental disrepair, in part because of the industry it houses, but primarily because the city has failed to pave streets and install basic sewer infrastructure in Willets Point.

"We're not blighted, we are neglected by the city," Scully told last week's rally. "If we're blighted, it's because that has been the city's plan for 30 years."

Councilman Tony Avella, who represents the district just east and north of Willets Point, said that it was the business owners who, despite paying taxes, have paid out-of-pocket for the necessary improvements to keep the area in a state that is minimally viable for business, a job he says should have been done by the city.

"Now we are telling them, 'sell us your land or we are going to give you a swift kick in the butt,'" said Avella.

The councilman who actually represents Willets Point said last week that he has told the Bloomberg administration that any development in the area must proceed without the use of eminent domain, which he said was "off the table."

"Nobody's property should be taken away to create corporate wealth for other," said Councilman Hiram Monserrate.

In the case of Downtown Brooklyn, blight has been much harder to prove. The area's councilwoman, Letitia James, charged last week that it was Forest City Ratner's purchase of several properties in the area and subsequent neglect thereof, that is the only reason a case could be made to declare the area blighted.

"FCR has created blight in Downtown Brooklyn, and they should not be rewarded," said James. "We are stealing property to give to rich developers who have friends in high places."

The Atlantic Yards arena project isn't the only place in Brooklyn where the city is employing eminent domain. A row of houses on Duffield Street will also be seized as part of a comprehensive economic development plan for Downtown Brooklyn. In addition to the controversy surrounding seizing private property, the homes' owners believe there is strong evidence that the houses were an integral part of the Underground Railroad, and at one time hid escaped slaves.

"They want to bulldoze our homes to make way for an underground parking lot - like we don't have enough of those," said Joy Chatel, a Duffield Street resident, before issuing a warning to homeowners throughout the city. "Buy your house and live in it at your own risk."

The rally took place just after a significant anniversary. The Saturday prior marked two years to the day that the Supreme Court ruled on the Kelo v. New London case, which set a legal precedent for the seizure of private property for the possibility of increased tax revenue and jobs.

"That decision was so reviled by Americans that 38 states have since passed some sort of legislation targeting eminent domain reform," said Lumi Rolley, who runs NoLandGrab.org, a website that follows developments surrounding the Atlantic Yards fight and other examples of eminent domain throughout the city.

Three bills have been introduced at the state level that would limit and restrict the use of eminent domain in New York State, but they have floundered. A 2003 study conducted by the Institute of Justice declared the state one of the top abusers of eminent domain.

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