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Brooklyn Bar Wants to Handcuff Eminent Domain Abuse

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What would you do if your favorite neighborhood watering hole was being demolished for a rich, greedy developer? Handcuff yourself to the bar, naturally.

Since hearing their favorite tavern was going to be condemned, regulars at Freddy's Bar & Backroom in Brooklyn bolted a chain to the bar and have been practicing handcuffing themselves to it in protest of the imminent bulldozers. Voted one of the best bars in America by Esquire and consistently one of the best dive bars in New York City, the pub will soon be ripped down so tycoon developer Bruce Ratner can build himself and his Russian playboy business partner Mikhail Prokhorov 16 skyscrapers and a basketball arena for the worst team in the NBA. Today marked the groundbreaking for the development, called Atlantic Yards.

Freddy's isn't falling down in disrepair and pays all its bills. So why is this humble and adored bar being evicted?

It exists on land that a politically connected developer covets--and in New York, that means your property is not your own.

As is commonplace in the Empire State, Ratner's friends in high places (Michael Bloomberg and the Empire State Development Corporation, among others) have backed his development efforts with the power of eminent domain, the ability to forcibly take private property for what is supposed to be a public use.

"Public use" conjures up images of roads or court houses--exactly what the power of eminent domain was intended for by the Framers of the Constitution. But even Bruce Ratner himself has admitted this isn't a public project. "Why should people get to see plans?" he told Crain's last year. "This isn't a public project."

So how can he use this despotic power for his own private profit? One word: "blight."

"Blight" to most people means truly horrible slums--areas where falling-down buildings and crumbling roofs present a real risk to health and safety. But in the '50s and '60s, urban planners, along with pliant courts, began to expand the definition of "blight" so they could use eminent domain to raze entire neighborhoods merely because they didn't look the way urban planners wanted them to. In the process, more than one million people nationwide, a disproportionate number of them racial minorities, were uprooted and displaced to make way for brand-new development--development that, with remarkable frequency, never actually happened.

This expansion of the eminent domain power culminated with the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London. In that case, the city wanted to seize the homes of Susette Kelo and her neighbors for a ritzier private development that would enhance Pfizer's new research facility located next door. The Court declared the takings constitutional: Private property could be condemned for private development--even when it is not blighted--so long as a plan was in place and there was some promise of increased tax revenue or jobs. With that decision and without exaggeration, every property in America was on the chopping block.

New York had terrible eminent domain laws prior to Kelo. Nearly any property could be declared "blighted" using the state's vague and amorphous criteria that have doomed hard-working property owners for decades. Kelo emboldened New York officials with a renewed charge to trample the property rights of the little guy for the sake of lining government coffers and developers' pockets.

My organization, the Institute for Justice, represented Susette and her neighbors. Following the decision, the homeowners were kicked out of their neighborhood--and the developer skipped town because of financing issues. Most recently, Pfizer announced that it too will leave New London. Susette's old neighborhood is now a vacant wasteland of weeds and feral cats--who presumably don't contribute to the city's tax base as the former residents did.

After Kelo, 43 state legislatures passed laws limiting their powers of eminent domain, but New York has yet to do so and remains the worst state in the country for eminent domain abuse.

Unfortunately, New York's high court has demonstrated it will not provide any protection for home (or bar) owners in the state. In a stunning act of judicial abdication, the Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, deferred completely to the state's determination that Freddy's and the surrounding neighborhood was "blighted." The blight study--paid for by Ratner and conducted years after the project was announced--relied on findings like "underutilization," which means that a property could make more money as something else. That could be said about virtually any property including the mayor's home, the New York Times headquarters (also developed by Ratner through eminent domain) or the new Nets arena itself (the way they've been playing, it certainly will be underutilized).

A law originally intended to remove direct threats to public health and safety has been manipulated in New York to suit the whims of any Bloomberg, Ratner or Goliath. Agencies in New York are permitted and encouraged to declare blight by fiat.

Fortunately, the state's high court has a chance to redeem itself: a lower court has since ruled that Columbia University--an elite, private organization--could not seize surrounding businesses to expand its campus. (Again, Columbia isn't a public university; it is a private one.) The state has appealed, and oral argument is scheduled before the Court of Appeals in June.

As long as New York's high court continues to rubber stamp any declaration of blight and the Legislature refuses to reform its bogus law, favorite neighborhood dives like Freddy's will continue to be seized and handed over to any developer who comes along with promises of glitzy towers and arenas--no matter how pie-in-the-sky the proposals are. In fact, the grander the promise, the better.

Sadly, eminent domain abuse will continue to disproportionately target minorities and the less well-off, as IJ found in its nationwide demographic study on eminent domain abuse, Victimizing the Vulnerable. A closer look at project areas in the New York City metropolitan area found that 92 percent of project area residents are minorities, versus 57 percent in surrounding communities. Residents are also overwhelmingly more often renters and have lower incomes.

Barring sudden intervention by the governor or other powers-that-be, Ratner will successfully uproot and destroy a vibrant piece of Brooklyn. Freddy's will be torn down and hopefully rebuilt elsewhere. The Nets will undoubtedly secure the worst record in the NBA.

But in the meantime, we raise our glasses to Freddy's Bar and its loyal patrons for taking a last stand against this landgrab. Cheers.

Christina Walsh is the Director of Activism and Coalitions for the Institute for Justice (ij.org), which fights eminent domain abuse nationwide.