Court upsets Columbia’s eminent domain option

Property owners challenge ESDC’s authority to use eminent domain on behalf of Columbia. Looking to expand in West Harlem, Columbia University teamed up with the City’s Economic Development Corporation in 2001 to redevelop the area. Not long after, EDC issued a West Harlem Master Plan. The plan stated that West Harlem could be redeveloped through rezoning, and did not mention any blighted conditions in Manhattanville. Columbia began purchasing property in the area in 2002 for its own redevelopment and expansion plan. The seventeen-acre project site, bounded by West 133rd Street on the north, West 125th Street on the south, Broadway and Old Broadway on the east, and Twelfth Avenue on the west, would include sixteen new buildings, and a contiguous below-grade support facility.

Two years after the purchasing began, Columbia met with the Empire State Development Corporation and EDC to discuss Columbia’s plan and the condemnation of land. Subsequently, EDC issued a study concluding the area was blighted. ESDC retained Columbia’s consultant, who also found the area suffered from blight. ESDC later commissioned a second blight study with a consultant without ties to Columbia. The study also found blighted conditions throughout the area. Seven months after the second study, ESDC authorized the acquisition of certain property through eminent domain, and several affected property owners filed petitions challenging the determination.

The First Department granted the petitions, ruling that ESDC’s decision to use eminent domain for Columbia’s benefit violated the federal and State constitutions. ESDC could not exercise its eminent domain power unless the project had a public use, benefit, or purpose. Despite ESDC’s claim that the project would serve the public purpose of alleviating blight, the First Department found that nothing in the record supported that determination, especially since each blight study relied upon by ESDC failed to take into account factors such as real estate values and rental demand. The court further found that the use of eminent domain would allow Columbia to develop Manhattanville for its own private benefit, and would not benefit the community in any meaningful way.

Kaur v. New York State Urban Dev. Corp., 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 08976 (1st Dep’t Dec. 3, 2009) (Attorneys: David L. Smith, Steven J. Hyman, for property owners; John R. Casolaro, Joseph M. Ryan, Susan B. Kalib, for ESDC).

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