This morning, State Senators Bill Perkins and Efraim Gonzales held a public hearing on eminent domain at the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building on 125th Street.

Perkins issued a statement reading, “In many instances, eminent domain is an instrument used by government, not in the context of their independently created economic development plans, but at the behest of private developers who wish for the state and city to use its powers of eminent domain to aggregate parcels of land for commercial benefit. This methodology has strained the relationship between government and communities affected by these development plans, that have at best, a vague purpose and at worst create the impression of a corporatocracy instead of true democratic governance. It will be critical to examine the original procedural structure in place to justify and exercise eminent domain.” The hearing’s intention was to gather ideas for potential legislation that would govern eminent domain at the state level.

Many familiar faces from eminent domain battles in NYC were present this morning, including: Nick Sprayregen, a property owner in Columbia University’s expansion footprint (who blogs here); Daniel Goldstein, a property owner in the Atlantic Yards footprint and member of Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn; and Dan Feinstein of the Willets Point Industry and Realty Association, among many others. Julie Lawrence, a member of Brooklyn Community Board 1, delivered testimony on behalf of the Community-Based Planning Task Force, which you can read after the jump.

Community Based Planning Task Force Testimony for Public Hearing on Eminent Domain, Wednesday, September 17, 2008. Attn: State Senator Bill Perkins, State Senator Efraim Gonzalez

Hello, my name is Julie Lawrence, and I am a member of the Executive Committee of the Community-Based Planning Task Force, a 90-member coalition made up of local grassroots organizations, community boards, elected officials, academics, and planners that are leading the effort to create a more meaningful role for the public in New York City’s planning and development decisions. Thank you for taking on this issue that is having such a profound impact in several of our neighborhoods.

I’d like to take the opportunity today to make three points: 1) a comprehensive plan should precede major land use actions; 2) the public should have a strong voice in the use of eminent domain; and 3) the abuse of eminent domain diminishes its value as a tool to achieve public benefit.

Comprehensive plan

The surge in New York City’s population and associated demands for housing, economic development, increased open space, and improvements to physical and social infrastructure have been acknowledged by our elected officials at both the state and municipal levels. And yet, New York City still lacks a comprehensive planning framework. Redevelopment of New York City for current and future residents and businesses, where scarcity of land makes nearly every development decision a struggle over contested space, will succeed only when all stakeholders are brought together to achieve consensus around development goals. We need a citywide planning framework grounded in consensus and based on city policies, city goals, and neighborhood plans—such as Manhattan Community Board 9’s 197-a Plan.

A citywide planning framework would provide an unprecedented opportunity for a dialogue between the City and its communities, to create a shared vision for the future. Only after such a discussion can we be assured that development is truly providing the shared benefit for all New Yorkers that could potentially justify the use of eminent domain.

Process

The decision-making process for State development projects is in serious need of reform. The involvement of the State, operating through the offices of the Empire State Development Corporation, means projects sidestep ULURP—our flawed yet Charter-defined due process for projects seeking discretionary approvals. Removing ULURP means removing the community boards, borough presidents, and City Council members in the deliberations that shape outcomes. Projects that rely on the taking of private property need more transparency, accountability, and standardization, not less.

It is really only those who live in, work in, and represent a community who can understand the full contributions made to the neighborhood and the city by a local business, or an apartment house, or an open space. While the definition of blight is notoriously subjective, who is in a better position to understand the full value of a single piece of local property than the locals? There must be sufficient process in place to allow for community voices in the determination of blight. As we have seen in the case of Atlantic Yards, without a participatory planning process in place, development gets delayed, faith in government erodes, and land use decisions end up being made in the courts.

The Future of Eminent Domain

Eminent domain should be used as a tool to achieve community development goals. We would not have many of the city’s public schools, parks, rail lines, and affordable housing units if eminent domain was not available as a tool for property acquisition. But when the public’s voice is denied in the decision to use a tool that is intended to serve the public good, we are squandering that important tool. Until and unless the public benefit is undeniable, flows from a clear plan, and has been agreed upon through a public process, eminent domain should not be used.

New York City has historically shown itself as a leader nationally and internationally in planning and development —from instituting the first comprehensive zoning resolution in 1916; to putting the first municipal landmarks law on the books in 1965; to decentralizing planning decisions by setting up community planning boards in 1963. We should be able to be at the forefront of the battle to ensure a role for the public in eminent domain decisions.

The Community-Based Planning Task Force is interested in developing policies surrounding this issue, and we look forward to the opportunity to work with you further. Thank you very much for the opportunity to provide this testimony today.

For more information contact Lacey Tauber at 212/935-3960, x261.

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