This story makes me sick to my stomach. Really. I nearly lost my Cuban sandwich while reading about this over lunch today.
First we had the case of Kelo vs. New London — an egregious abuse of the concept of eminent domain in which the Supreme Court of the United States said it was OK for a municipality to seize the property of ordinary residents — not to build a school or a highway, but to hand it over to private developers.
At the time, I could not have envisioned an eminent domain case as appalling as that of Kelo. But now we have that same U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear the case of two small business owners in Manhattan who have been locking horns with an Ivy League university that wants to expand.
The New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, has overturned a lower-court decision that would have blocked Columbia University from using the power of the state to condemn properties in West Harlem to satisfy university President Lee Bollinger’s “vision” of new space for the Business School, the School of the Arts, and the Jerome L. Greene Science Center for Mind, Brain, and Behavior.
As bad as the Kelo case was, at least its underlying premise was that the increased tax revenue generated by the developers would satisfy the constitutional requirement that there be a public gain or accommodation from the condemnation (ironically, five years after the decision, the property still sits undeveloped).
As Megan McArdle has pointed out, this latest decision will force two tax-paying businesses to sell against their will to a private organization that is largely tax-exempt and that predominantly serves the wealthy and the powerful. Could someone explain to me how this is a “public good?” A statement from the Empire State Development Corporation, the agency with the power to invoke eminent domain, was laughable:
This victory represents a significant step toward achieving the many goals of the project, including strengthening New York as an international center for premier education and academic research programs, improving facilities and infrastructure within the footprint and the surrounding community, generating thousands of jobs for New Yorkers and creating much-needed open space in the neighborhood.
There’s no question I’ve devoted myself to this conception of the future of the University. It all follows from a belief that one of the problems that interferes with Columbia’s potential … is space, and this effectively solves that problem.