Blight, The Necessary Requirement for Condemnation

On December 29, 2022, the New York Times ran a story, “Why New York State insists that the Penn Station Area is ‘“Blighted.”’  The answer, silly, is that it had to.

In New York, we just can’t condemn property unless there is a finding of blight.  I suggest that “blight” is in the eyes of the beholder.  I once attended a public hearing held pursuant to Article 2 of the Eminent Domain Procedure Law.  I believe it was for the taking for the expansion of Columbia University.  At the hearing, someone asked the Urban Development Corporation, “has your agency ever obtained a report indicating there was no blight?”  The answer was no.

Much has been said about blight.  Professor Steven J. Eagle wrote an excellent paper, “Does Blight Really Justify Condemnation,” which was also published in the Urban Lawyer, Issue No. 4, Fall 2007.  As is obvious from the title, the Professor does not think blight justifies condemnation.

To say the Times’ article is tainted is easy.  The first photo in the article is of cops holding a handcuffed man.

We have been consulted by the largest property owners in the proposed taking area.  We offered an opinion of very low chances of stopping the project.  First, courts just are unwilling to review a blight designation.  As the Times article reports, “as defined by the State of New York, the label is both vague and all-encompassing.  It can include conditions like traffic congestion and excessive density that would describe much of New York City.”

The article continues:  For the Penn Station project, state officials have staked their claims of blight on “substandard and insanitary conditions” and “economic stagnation.”  The evidence to support those claims was outlined in a neighborhood study commissioned by Empire State Development, the agency overseeing the project and facing the lawsuit from its opponents, and completed by a civil engineering firm in February 2021.

In the 240-page neighborhood report, the firm explored the exterior and interior conditions of every property in the redevelopment area, assigning ratings for each site.  The buildings were found to be older, with many built before 1932, and generating lower retail revenue than their peers in surrounding neighborhoods.

Blight is often caused by merely announcing a project.  There is just so much time that passes from the idea of a project to actually filing a petition to condemn that all normal activities related to real estate and development stop.  Tenants leave, owners will not invest in improvements or maintain their properties.  The market collapses, few people wish to invest in a property about to be taken.  Sales tend to be more distressed sales than the proverbial “willing buyer under no compulsion to buy and willing seller under no compulsion to sell” fair market transactions.

The legislature should remove the requirement of a finding of blight as an essential ingredient for urban renewal.

Posted in Blight, Condemnation, Penn Station
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