Amy Lavine '98
Attorney Amy Lavine ’98 Works to Reform Eminent Domain and Redevelopment Practices in New York State
What does blight look like? A building riddled with bullet holes, broken windows, topped off by a rodent infestation and a collapsing roof? If a city block is underutilized—meaning it’s not fully built-out—is it de facto blighted? Or for that matter, can blight be based on superficial physical characteristics like cracked sidewalks and chipping paint?
These are the questions Amy Lavine ’98, is working to address. Lavine, a staff attorney at the Government Law Center at Albany Law School and resident of Hudson NY, also serves as a pro bono advisor to New York State Senator Bill Perkins.
Senator Perkins’s district includes the West Harlem neighborhood of Manhattanville, where Columbia University has proposed to build a controversial new campus. The New York Empire State Development Corporation acted on Columbia’s behalf, declaring the area blighted in order to exercise eminent domain. Angered by the move, local property owners sued the state.
When the case came up for review by the US Supreme Court, Lavine helped Perkins’s office write a friend of the court brief . Though the case was denied review in December, Lavine and Senator Perkins continue to advocate for more oversight. Last year, Lavine helped to advise Senator Perkins through the introduction of legislation to define precisely what blight means in the state of New York.
Returning to Campus
Last November Lavine was on campus to share her work with students. She returned to Bard College at Simon’s Rock to participate in the Proseminar Series, a program for juniors designed to foster intellectual community through seminars, readings, discussions, and excursions.
Excited to address student intellectuals and activists, Lavine presented the issues with her audience in mind—she’s used to lecturing to law students familiar with the technical language—explaining the complex history of urban renewal programs. Poised and judicious, she allowed her audience to tease out the unique and complex issues at play:
- public use and private profit
- tax revenues and government oversight
- gentrification and economic diversity
“Blight is a term urban planners started using before World War II,” Lavine says. “They borrowed it from plant epidemiology to convey the notion that certain parts of cities were diseased, and that in order to contain the illness and let the city flourish, the blighted portion had to be eliminated and completely rebuilt.”
Lavine concentrated in ecology and fine arts at Simon’s Rock, and her thesis explored developing curriculum for environmental education. That interest in the environment evolved as Lavine pursued her career, and she now practices both environmental law and land use and development law.
Blight used to describe city areas that were severely overcrowded, lacked utilities and sanitary facilities, and were prone to fires and outbreaks of disease. “Today blight determinations often have more to do with the desire to make a profit by redeveloping urban properties with higher value uses,” says Lavine.
While the bill that emerged from Lavine’s work for Senator Perkins didn’t make it to a floor vote, it would have a tremendous impact on how property can be deemed blighted for economic development land-takings. It’s based on similar reforms enacted in other states. “When it comes to having good, clear policies outlining the process and conditions under which eminent domain can be used for economic development, having a definition of what constitutes blight is extremely important,” Lavine explains.
“Having objective standards will improve the quality of redevelopment planning and help protect the predominantly minority and low income communities that are typically the target of economic development takings.”
While Lavine is working to shape policy, she’s also raising awareness through her academic work. In addition to her involvement with the Proseminar, she’s written extensively about eminent domain and urban redevelopment:
- She recently published a law review article exploring the history of Berman v. Parker, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that involved blighted area takings.
- She also coauthored an article stemming from her involvement with another high-profile eminent domain case, the Atlantic yards project in Brooklyn, NY, which raises many of the same issues involved in the Columbia case.
- In a forthcoming law review article, Lavine traces the history of slum clearance and urban redevelopment policy in New York State, discussing the people and ideas that shaped legislation and judicial opinions over the last century.
Welcoming Alumni Involvement
Alumni stay engaged with Simon’s Rock in numerous ways, and Lavine’s return to campus to work with students is just one example. In fact, two other alums spoke as part of the Proseminar Series. Kirsten (McClaid-Cook) Barrett ’94, who works with the US Geological Survey, spoke on how global climate change is effecting the way fire impacts various ecosystems, and Abigail Foulds ’96 discussed her research on expatriate property owners in Nicaragua and the development of tourist economies.