Friday, November 11, 2005


No blight: Does Roger Green's statement hinder Ratner's plans?

If you walk around the non-railyard component of the Atlantic Yards footprint, you'd see a mix of buildings: some restored into luxury housing, some extant row houses, some industrial and commercial buildings still operating, and several that are grungy or completely moribund. It's not all pretty, but the trend has been upward, an indication of progress. But if Forest City Ratner wants the land, and some property owners won't sell, the state may have to determine that it's "blighted," an enormously vague term.

At a legislative hearing November 5, state Assemblyman Roger Green, a project supporter who represents the area, declared that it is not, in fact, blighted.
In a Brooklyn Papers article headlined Atlantic Yards ‘is not blighted,’ says Green, the legislator spoke forcefully:
“For the record, that neighborhood is not blighted, said Green. “I repeat, for the record, that neighborhood is not blighted.”
“Under the definition of blight, as related to poverty or environmental degradation, this definition is not related to Prospect Heights,” Green told The Brooklyn Papers afterwards.

The project would go forward because of a designation of blight:
“I think the state will make its decision, unlike ‘Kelo,’ based on whether or not they believe this is a blighted area,” Forest City Executive Director Jim Stuckey said in a Nov. 3 segment of “Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” echoing statements he made almost a year earlier at a public meeting at New York City College of Technology, Downtown.

Green added that he did consider part of the neighborhood blighted:
“One is the rail yards, which is blight, and then the other part, which is made up of residential and commercial properties. That other part is not blight.”

Well, blight generally implies neglect, and while the railyard has not been developed to support commercial or residential buildings, it has been operating. And it drew a $150 million bid from the Extell Development Corp., and a $100 million from Forest City Ratner to the Metropolitan Transporation Authority--and those bids (the MTA negotiated exclusively with Ratner) didn't require eminent domain to acquire the railyard.

While project opponents said that Green's statement hurt Forest City Ratner's case, it's probably more murky. First, a bill that clarifies eminent domain--such as requiring local government approval--would have to be passed by spring, before the state acted to acquire land in May or June.

And the state has had a lot of leeway, a law professor testified:
“Forest City Ratner argued that the property now being used for the New York Times building [near 42nd Street on Manhatan’s Westside] was blighted even though there were existing buildings and businesses there,” said David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor who writes about eminent domain. “The case for the Atlantic rail yards area appears even stronger because there is even less economic activity at that location.”

A Brooklyn Downtown Star article headlined Assembly Questions Eminent Domain Law pointed out that, after four hours of testimony from different perspectives, Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who chairs the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, said he lacked a firm definition of what constitutes justification for exercise of the power. "I'm not any closer now that I was at the beginning of the day," Brodsky said.

There is clearly a divide:
Michael Cardoza, Corporation Counsel for the City Law Department, said use of eminent domain, as one of many tools for economic revitalization, is essential to the city's well being. He cited Times Square, Lincoln Center and MetroTech as evidence of the success of urban renewal in formerly blighted neighborhoods.
"Eminent domain is rarely the government's first choice. It can be costly and time consuming but it can be necessary," said Cardoza.
But [Scott] Bullock [of the Institute for Justice] said using the other tools should be sufficient in most cases. "Eminent domain for private economic development is simply not necessary," he said. "Economic development happens every single day in this country without eminent domain."

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