Eminent Domain: Government tool for Developers or Progress for Communities?

Eminent domain - the right of government to take land from private owners for the public good - has always been used to build public projects such as highways, hospitals, schools and parks. But another interpretation of the process is integrating eminent domain into some of the city's biggest development projects. Many communities continue to reject it while officials say it's necessary for progress. WNYC's Elaine Rivera reports:

REPORTER: New York has always used eminent domain - to revitalize Times Square and create Lincoln Center or for establishing Central Park. Once again, the effects of eminent domain are washing over communities that are seeing major development projects. Among them: Atlantic yards - the mega mixed residential and commercial complex in Brooklyn, a proposed waterfront development in Willets Point Queens and the Columbia University expansion in West Harlem. But increasingly residents are putting up a fight.

MONTBLANC: We don't want to use it against anybody. Taking private property from somebody to give it to another private developer is criminal it's thievery it's against the constitution - it should be.

REPORTER:That's Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chair of community board 9, which has vigorously opposed Columbia University's plan to use eminent domain to purchase commercial properties in the neighborhood.

Historically, however, eminent domain, which the founding fathers included in the Bill of Rights, was established so governments could take properties to build public projects that would benefit society overall. But David Reiss, a Brooklyn Law School professor, says since the controversial 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Kelo versus the City of New London case the law is increasingly being used in another manner. The court ruled that the Connecticut town could take over residential and commercial properties for private development.

REISS: What you see now has become a trend, a recent trend as developers have seen eminent domain as this tool that they can use pretty effectively to reduce costs and decrease time for development they see it as a development tool.

REPORTER: States and municipalities continue to have leeway as to how they use eminent domain, and they have a broad definition of blight - one of the criteria that allows them to seize property. Blight, according to the law, not only means that a site is neglected but it could also mean that it's underutilized.

Much to the shock of residents, says Reese, who are stunned to learn that city and state officials can seize property for private developers.

REISS: I think when people themselves are affected by the power of eminent domain they they see the state really has this overwhelming power in this community they didn't realized they had.

REPORTER: Lumi Michelle Rolley is such a person. An anti-eminent domain activist, Rolley has organized rallies at City Hall and is a contributor to NoLandGrab.org, an anti-eminent domain blog. Rolley says what she found particularly disconcerting is that governments are turning over properties that are blighted but she argues that the blight in part comes because the government neglected to take care of the property to begin with.

She points to the Vanderbilt Rail yards, already deemed blighted, which will become part of developer Bruce Ratner's Atlantic Yards mega project. There are overgrown weeds and garbage is strewn about. But one day the site will be home to sixteen mixed-use skyscrapers and a professional sports arena.

ROLLEY: This is an example here of what we call municipal blight where the state has allowed these blight characteristics to continue and then they use these characteristics to deem the property is blighted and use that as justification to call the whole neighborhood as blighted and a lot of people who live around here think that's just unfair.

REPORTER: Brothers Dan and Howard Feinstein, who own Feinstein Iron Works in Willets Point, Queens, share the same sentiment. Just a few hundred yards from Shea Stadium, Willets Points is home to hundreds of auto body and mechanic shops. Visitors to the site express amazement that the area is part of the United States. Here's Howard Feinstein:

FEINSTEIN: Unfortunately, I've called it the Third World. I think most people who have been down here see is as the same, we don't have roads, we don't have sidewalks we have no storm sewers, we have no drainage, we have no sanitary service we're probably the only place in New York City to not have those services street lights don't work sanitation doesn't come by we don't have plows any plowing is done privately the streets haven't been paved well over 20 years basically faced with surviving on the city's neglect trying to make due with what we have.

REPORTER: Bob Lieber, president of the New York City Economic Corporation, says he sympathizes with Feinstein's and Rolley's concerns - but he says that's why they need eminent domain - to revitalize areas that will bring a higher tax base, more jobs and housing.

REPORTER: Lieber describes Willets Point as a contaminated waste site that needs to be improved and developed.

LIEBER: There is an active, vibrant real estate market that was a lot different than the early 90s there's capital available and a high degree of interest that we have seen in the private sector to undertake this kind of development.

REPORTER: The issue has divided communities. Opponents believe livable wage jobs will be lost and there will be a forced exodus of low- and moderate income families. Pro-development residents who say they want to see increased number of jobs and mixed- housing. At Willets Point, Lieber points out that many in nearby communities want the development to proceed.

LIEBER: This is not something that we solely identified as a city initiative - this is something that the community asked us for to come up with a plan to how to address this because it has been far too long it is an ugly blighted area.

REPORTER: But Dan Feinstein says the city better be prepared for a major fight. He believes that if he loses his company, good-paying jobs will be replaced by service-industry jobs that won't pay nearly as well. Feinstein also says his company, which manufactures fabricated steel, would be extremely difficult to re-locate. It's been in his family for more than 70 years and wants to pass it on to the fourth generation of Feinsteins.

FEINSTEIN: We're not adverse to New York moving forward and development of New York but we're just not going to accept it at our expense. They're not going to take us and throw us to the wolves so some billionaire developer can get another trophy on his table, another million square feet of office space

REPORTER: Lieber's response:

LIEBER: We're very serious. We're going forward.

REPORTER: And with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the government's side, it's likely the city has the upper hand - for now. For WNYC, I'm Elaine Rivera