The incredibly thorny legal issue of Fifth Amendment takings is back in the spotlight. The U.S. Supreme Court is mulling over the value of beachfront property in Florida, and another very different takings case was decided by a New York appeals court against Columbia University. The University wanted to use eminent domain to acquire a few hold-out properties that were in the way of a campus expansion. The court had a problem with the procedure used to determine that the neighborhood was blighted, and thus struck down the prior condemnation of the properties.
Legal questions aside, David Sucher, of City Comforts Blog, has a fascinating response to the Columbia "loss." He's not so sure it's a loss:
"There is an urban design element to this issue which should not be ignored. All that happens (if this decision is upheld) is that Columbia may not be able to build a "campus." It can certainly build on the rest of the land it has already purchased, (much of it however I assume under threat of condemnation which may be a biter pill for those who sold "voluntarily.") It could build on those parcels as if it was just any other property owner.Last month the City of New London, Connecticut experienced one of the liabilities of an all-or-nothing urban renewal approach. As an economic development strategy, 8-years ago the city courted the Pfizer Corporation with a brand new office park and plans for surrounding hotels and condominiums. Now the Pfizer Corporation is pulling out and leaving behind the shell of an office park and the still undeveloped land around it. The use of eminent domain from the outset launched the City into the landmark Kelo v. New London Supreme Court case. And they won. Or did they?
Yes, the overall feel would not be of a traditional isolated walled tree-shaded “campus.” It would be much more urban with non-university buildings along the current street grid etc etc. Columbia's building would be interspersed with non-univeristy structures. In fact if the City were smart it would require Columbia to build mixed-use structures so that in appropriate locations there would be commercial uses along the street and Columbia's buildings would be integrated into the neighborhood. That should have been the style of development from the start; there would have been no eminent domain dispute and it have been a much better and safer (in many ways) urban design solution.
Unfortunately most institutional developers think in terms of a nice clean tabula rasa campus and not how the space they need can fit with an existing city. That’s a pity.
In this case Columbia is held hostage to its view that the way to satisfy its space needs (which I do not dispute) is in the form of a “campus” which reads as separate from the surrounding neighborhood. If Columbia could get rid of that antiquated notion it could be under construction immediately as it owns a great deal of land.
Here is another way to look at it: do you want Columbia’s expansion to feel like a Robert Moses “campus?” or a Jane Jacobs “neighborhood?"
The problem with large-scale "tabula rasa" development is that it lacks resilience. One piece falls out and it all comes crashing down. How many communities have bent over backwards for a huge-footprint Walmart or Target, only to be left with the discarded carcass of a building a decade later? Building the kind of neighborhood Sucher is talking about may be a more complicated investment, one not well supported by government policies or the structure of financial institutions, but the long-term payback makes it worth it.