Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Outrageous Misuse of Eminent Domain - Avaricious developers and governments twist the meaning of 'blight'

Another Outrageous Misuse of Eminent Domain Published in The Washington Post

I - Avaricious developers and governments twist the meaning of 'blight'

By George F. Will

Sunday, January 3, 2010
A16

BROOKLYN

On Aug. 27, 1776, British forces routed George Washington's novice army in the Battle of Brooklyn, which was fought in fields and woods where today the battle of Prospect Heights is being fought. Americans' liberty is again under assault, but this time by overbearing American governments.

The fight involves an especially egregious example of today's eminent domain racket. The issue is a form of government theft that the Supreme Court encouraged with its worst decision of the past decade -- one that probably will be radically revised in this one.

The Atlantic Yards site, where 10 subway lines and one railway line converge, is the center of the bustling Prospect Heights neighborhood of mostly small businesses and middle-class residences. Its energy and gentrification are reasons why 22 acres of this area -- the World Trade Center site is only 16 acres -- are coveted by Bruce Ratner, a politically connected developer collaborating with the avaricious city and state governments.

To seize the acres for Ratner's use, government must claim that the area -- which is desirable because it is vibrant -- is "blighted." The cognitive dissonance would embarrass Ratner and his collaborating politicians, had their cupidity not extinguished their sense of the absurd.

The condo of Daniel Goldstein, his wife and year-old daughter, which cost Goldstein $590,000 in 2003, is on part of the land where Ratner's $4.9 billion project would be built -- with the assistance of more than $1 billion in corporate welfare from the state and city governments, which are drowning in red ink. The Goldsteins' building would not seem blighted to anyone not paid to see blight for the convenience of the payers. Which is of constitutional significance. The Constitution says that government may not take private property other than for a "public use." By "public," the Framers, who did not scatter adjectives carelessly, meant uses -- roads, bridges, parks, public buildings -- directly owned or primarily used by the general public. In 1954, however, in a case concerning a crime- and infectious-disease-ridden section of Washington, D.C., the court expanded the notion of "public use" to include removing "blight."

Since then, that term, untethered from serious social dangers, has become elastic in the service of avarice. In 2005, the court held, 5 to 4, that New London, Conn., could take the property of a middle-class neighborhood and transfer it to a corporate developer who would pay more taxes to the city government than the evicted homeowners had paid. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, dissenting, warned that the consequences of the decision would "not be random." The beneficiaries would be people "with disproportionate influence and power in the political process."

Enter Ratner, with plans to build a huge complex of high-rise residences, commercial properties and a basketball arena for the NBA's New Jersey Nets, which he bought. The city and state governments salivated at the thought of new revenue -- perhaps chimerical -- to waste. The problem was, and is, that people live and work where Ratner wants to build.

So blight had to be discovered. It duly was, by a firm that specializes in such discoveries. New York's highest court ratified that finding, 6 to 1.

But a week later, Columbia University, which has plans for a $6.3 billion expansion in Manhattan, was stymied in its attempt to wield the life-shattering power of eminent domain against several local businesses that do not want to be shattered. A state court held, 3 to 2, that condemnation proceedings had been unconstitutional. The court said the blight designation was "mere sophistry": "Even a cursory examination of the study reveals the idiocy of considering things like unpainted block walls or loose awning supports as evidence of a blighted neighborhood." The idiocy was written on Columbia's behalf by the same firm that Empire State Development Corp. hired to find blight at the Brooklyn site. Both Columbia and Ratner are operating in partnership with the ESDC, an arm of the state government. Both Columbia's and Ratner's attempts at seizing property are "pretextual takings," using trumped-up accusations of blight to concoct a spurious "public use" for a preconceived project.

The Atlantic Yards nonsense was compounded when Ratner, to bolster his balance sheet after the real estate collapse, sold the Nets to a Russian billionaire, who stands to benefit from Ratner's government-subsidized seizure of other people's property. Those people can only hope that New York's highest court will grant their appeal for reconsideration on the grounds that Ratner's argument is about as good as the Nets are. Through Saturday, their record was 3-30.

georgewill@washpost.com

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II Nine days later A letter to The Editor follows as The Avaricious Developer Cries….


Atlantic Yards project was not properly presented
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

George F. Will's Jan. 3 op-ed column, "In N.Y., government's eminent arrogance," attacked the Atlantic Yards project in New York because of the use of eminent domain.

Mr. Will never contacted the developer -- my company -- or supporters of the project, who include the governor, the mayor and the Brooklyn borough president. Yet he concluded that a "politically connected developer" is the recipient of largesse because the state agency leading the development can use eminent domain to obtain the remaining properties of individuals who refuse to sell. And he failed to note that my company controls 85 percent of the 22-acre site. Mr. Will also did not mention that nearly 40 percent of the site is a submerged rail yard, long a scar dividing this area of Brooklyn, and that the project will create nearly 17,000 construction jobs, 8,000 permanent jobs and 2,250 affordable apartment units.

At the start of this project, my company announced that it would try to avoid the use of eminent domain. To that end, we bought properties in the footprint, many of which were abandoned warehouses and empty lots. A group of holdouts announced early on that they were opposed to the development and pledged to sue often. They kept their word -- but lost every battle.

New York's unemployment rate is above 10 percent. Construction has all but halted there. We need to look to build in a way that can improve communities by creating mixed-income housing, jobs and vibrant centers that will attract visitors and residents.

Charles Ratner, Cleveland
The writer is president and chief executive officer of Forest City Enterprises, the developer of Atlantic Yards.|
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III A week later, today, the falsity of Developer Charles Ratner’s response is shown again


Seeking N.Y. land, developer twisted meaning of 'blight'

Tuesday, January 19, 2010; A16 George F. Will's Jan. 3 column on eminent domain for the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards Project, "In N.Y., government's eminent arrogance," focused on the perversion of "public use" to include "blight" removal and the perversion of "blight" to mean whatever land-hungry developers and their political partners want it to mean.

Developer Charles Ratner responded to the column with a misleading letter ["N.Y. project: Beyond eminent domain," Jan. 12]. Tellingly, his letter ignored the blight issue.

Mr. Ratner pretends the Atlantic Yards project site is little more than a rail yard, warehouses and empty lots. This is false. Before his firm, Forest City Enterprises, came along with its eminent domain and demolition plans, it was a gentrifying but mixed-income, mixed-use home to about 400 residents and 35 businesses.

Forest City would like everyone to think it tried to avoid using eminent domain and would use it only as a "last resort." But eminent domain was purposely a first resort -- it was the threat of eminent domain used as a gun to the heads of property owners and tenants that allows Mr. Ratner to think -- delusionally -- that he hasn't actually used eminent domain. The threat and the use are precisely the same, equally insidious and achieve the same result.

Daniel E. Goldstein, New York
The writer is co-founder and spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn.
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Disclosure: Daniel E. Goldstein is my son and I am his proud father

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