Wednesday, December 9

Eminent domain and the scale of development

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.

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?"
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?

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.


David Sucher said...

I've got to add a coda to my post. The following does not change my view that eminent domain is misused and that tabula rasa development is very tough to do well.

In fact Columbia plans to preserve the street-grid and provide ground-level retail in its new 'campus.' Sounds like just another nice urban neighborhood which is great and is indeed a step forward for institutional development. So why the eminent domain battle? Why didn't Columbia simply start buying and build as does every other developer? Might it pay more? (Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on how wide an area it targeted.) Could it buy as quickly?

Well Columbia so far as I can surmise is still in the institutional mind-set which requires complete control so even though the campus may be in the style of a real urban neighborhood, Columbia wants to control it all. So it needs eminent domain. But what is the excuse for needing the whole thing? It's a fascinating and clever twist:

Apparently Columbia's proposal calls for a seven story excavation -- that's incredibly huge -- over the entire 17 acre site. It claims that such an excavation is essential to create an urban neighborhood; services. deliveries etc etc can all go underground and not clutter up the surface, which sound to me just like a traditional campus! and not an urbane neighborhood at all.

Daniel said...

Thanks for the additional info. I do know that the area is in mostly industrial use right now, with some fairly run down buildings. Columbia understandably may not want to have to incorporate these elements into their plan, but, then again, there's probably a good chance the individual sites would be redeveloped in the future at some point anyway. That could add some interesting variety.

David Sucher said...

Variety and diversity are exactly the words. Plus higher land prices! :)

Columbia's presence and commitment would spark a lot of other development.

Eric Orozco said...

Interesting that you mention those run down industrial properties... These kind of properties engulf the MIT campus and one by one they've become wet lab spaces for biotech start-ups. What is interesting is that MIT owns a lot of those properties in Cambridge and takes a more organic, hands-off approach to development at its perimeter, allowing private players to operate them. Meanwhile...the folks down the river get booed in Allston.

Maybe, fact is, MIT is a research based campus and has no "Ivy League" image to live up to. Cluttered land uses, interspersed with many different owners and activities, makes very flexible spaces for entrepreneurial activity. Utilitarian and ugly yes, but many industrial properties are well-built buildings and have the swarthy infrastructure for research labs...They are tremendous university assets! Rather than displace what's there, MIT just wants to grow with it. Certainly a much smarter approach to the oft-fraught town-and-gown relationship.

Benjamin Hemric said...

Nice post and comments! Sorry, I haven't had the time to post a comment earlier.

I've just now posted two comments on the "Volokh Conspiracy" blog post which discusses some of the same issues that have also been raised here. They are at the end a blog post, "New York Intermediate Appellate Court Invalidates Taking of 'Blighted' Property . . . ", which David Sucher also contributed to. The originaly blog post, is dated December 3, 2009, and is by Ilya Somin. (It can be easily found by typing "blight" into the search text box.)

My comments there also include links to two posts from 2007, one from the "City Room" blog (on the "New York Times" website) and one from Norman Oder's "Atlantic Yards Report" blog. These blog posts, and my follow-up comments to them, provide some further information regarding this topic via a discussion of a 2007 program sponsored by the Municipal Art Society, entitled "When the Big Get Bigger." The president of Columbia, Lee Bollinger, was a panelist at this panel discussion.

Here's the URL:

- - - - - -

P.S. -- By the way, Ilya Somin is one of the attorneys listed on the Amicas Curae brief that Jane Jacobs submitted as part of the Kelo case. At one time, a pdf of the brief was available on line. Also, Norman Oder mentions it in one of his "Atlantic Yards Report" posts, and he may have provided a link to the pdf.

Sat., Dec. 12,2009 -- 10:05 p.m.

Daniel said...

That's interesting, Eric. MIT is a top-notch planning school (Columbia's good too though). I sometimes wonder whether there's much communication between the professors and students and the campus planners. I used to go into Cambridge once a week, but I never go a chance to take a good look at the MIT campus. That's too bad.

Eric Orozco said...

Daniel, the campus planners at MIT must thank their lucky stars sometimes. Both because they draw from the resources of a stellar planning faculty, as well as because the campus is such an organic work in progress - reaching for so many demands simultaneously and transitioning with new research developments, the work is never dull. It is not an accident that campus planners are often graduates of "Course 11". Bob Simha, a former director for 40 yeas, was a graduate of the MCP program...and he was no stranger to the planning students (not to mention faculty).

Of course, MIT is so ugly that even Frank Gehry can't mess it up. Having an industrial looking campus might be a deficit for clingy plants, but I think an entrepreneurial ethos pervades around MIT just because everything is...well, a utilitarian tabula rasa.

MIT turns inwards physically. It aspires to be lab space. It boasts housing the "messiest occupants". It is a messy urbanism because everybody's fiefdom is always rubbing against someone else's. Always converging.

MIT is laid out as a complex of interconnected buildings,...not a traditional campus in any sense, tight-knit and compact. Ped traffic is funneled into an "Infinite Corridor", and transition hours between classes are amazing...Everyone should experience the energy that place. The "image" of MIT depends not on the walls but on what gets done there. (Nonetheless, there are a few stellar buildings popping up at MIT.)

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