To most of us, “urban blight” means abandoned buildings, broken windows, and rubble-strewn vacant lots. But a number of other, seemingly minor, things can cause a property to be declared “blight” under existing law. One of the most surprising blight factors is “underutilization.”
An official “Blight Study” can be a devastating tool in the hands of the state – especially when it wants to seize private property for a politically favored project. A cynical architect friend of mine, wise in the ways of urban development, declared: “Show me an urban block – any block – and I can write a report that will show that it is “blighted.”
This reality became painfully clear to a group of us who have been trying to block an obscenely over-scaled $4-billion mega-development that a private developer – allied with politically powerful forces in New York State – has been trying to impose on brownstone Brooklyn. To provide a basis for the public subsidies needed to prop up the mega-project, a key legal tool of the Empire State Development Corp. – acting in concert with the developer – has been the official “Blight Study.” The Blight Study was used to condemn an area that was already undergoing revitalization through renovations being carried out by individual property owners. But the pace and scale of neighborhood rejuvenation were deemed not sufficiently grandiose by state planners and the private developer. And thus the $4-billion Atlantic Yards project was suddenly presented to the community as a “done deal.”
Our citizens group challenged the Blight Study in court as part of a number of lawsuits we’ve filed. One astonishing fact (to me at least) was that a piece of well-maintained property can be declared “blight” if it uses less than 60% of its legally allowable development rights. (The lawyers call that “underutilization.”) And on that basis, a number of small buildings that looked well-maintained, but which happened to be in the developer’s desired project footprint, were condemned as “blight.”
The fact that on the same “underutilization” basis, much of historic brownstone Brooklyn – one of the city’s great real estate assets – could similarly be declared “blight” held no sway in our court case. The findings of the Blight Study and the “underutilization” rule were allowed to stand.
Despite losing in court on the Blight Study, for other reasons – some legal, some financial – the mega-project has been stalled indefinitely. Before work halted, however, the developer aggressively demolished all of the structures that had been deemed “blighted.” This means that for an indefinite number of years, the project footprint will remain just acres of rubble-filled lots.
Brownstone Brooklyn is now left with the ultimate irony: All the buildings that were “blight” only in the eyes of New York State’s lawyers are demolished. They have been replaced by vast swaths of state-sanctioned urban wasteland (see photo) that is clearly “blight” by anyone’s definition. And this legal eyesore will now disfigure the urban landscape for the foreseeable future. Something is wrong with this picture!