New York’s Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in Kaur v. Urban Development Corporation. At issue is the state’s controversial use of eminent domain on behalf of Columbia University, which wants free rein to build a sweeping new 17-acre research campus in the West Harlem neighborhood of Manhattanville. To that end, Columbia joined forces with the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the powerful yet little-known state agency authorized to bypass zoning laws and seize private property via eminent domain. In July 2008 the ESDC declared Manhattanville to be “blighted,” the state of severe economic disrepair required to trigger an eminent domain taking under state law.
But Columbia’s schemes came to a halt last December when a state appellate court struck down the ESDC’s actions. Writing for a majority of the Supreme Court Appellate Division, First Department, Justice James Catterson denounced the ESDC for being “biased in Columbia’s favor” and condemned the agency’s blight determination as “mere sophistry.” It’s now up to the Court of Appeals to decide whether Justice Catterson got it right.
He did. As lead attorney and former New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Norman Siegel has been able to prove thanks to reams of documents retrieved via the state’s Freedom of Information Law, Columbia and the ESDC actively colluded in order to produce the very conditions of blight that would then allow the ESDC to seize property on the university’s behalf. This documentary record, which Siegel carefully details in the legal brief he submitted to the Court of Appeals, offers a convincing and damning portrait of government malfeasance on behalf of an elite private institution.
In sum, a powerful state agency secretly colluded with a powerful private university in order to trample constitutional rights, violate the letter and spirit of the law, and force law-abiding tenants out of their homes and businesses in order to manufacture self-serving blight conditions that disfigured an otherwise livable and commercially viable neighborhood. If there was ever a case where New York’s highest court should intervene against eminent domain abuse, this is it.