“Boycott the Times! Boycott the Times!” chanted angry members of the Manhattan Libertarian party outside New York Times headquarters on West 43rd Street. Their October 20 protest was a refreshing response to what party spokesman Richard Cooper calls “Time$cam” — the paper’s legalized theft of other people’s property.
The Times wants to build a 52-story office tower nearby on Eighth Avenue between 40th and 41st Streets, across from the Port Authority bus terminal. Inconveniently enough, that land already hosts about 30 companies in 11 different buildings. Rather than purchase these parcels from individual owners, the Old Gray Lady unleashed the Empire State Development Corporation (ESD) on them. This government agency used its powers of eminent domain to seize this property from obscure deed holders and deliver it to America’s high-profile paper of record.”
The U.S. and state constitutions allow officials to take private property for public purposes, provided the owners receive “just compensation.” This traditionally meant that if private property obstructed a highway, military base or other government project, its owner could be bought out for the public’s benefit. The Founding Fathers never envisioned government abusing this authority to transfer one owner’s hard-earned land to the private portfolio of another.
The Times has handled this with characteristic arrogance. First, in an October 25, 2001 article, staff writer David W. Dunlap described this site as “a shabby blend of sex shops, prostitution, loitering, and drug dealing that scarcely welcomes the world to the new Times Square.”
No one would confuse this block with a boutique-lined stretch of Madison Avenue. Still, it houses stable businesses, some of which are fighting in court to stay put. Prominent tenants include designer Donna Karan’s home license unit and Arnold Hatters, purveyors of the hats featured in Mel Brooks’s side-splitting Broadway musical, The Producers. The suits Laura Bush and Lynne Cheney wore at their husbands’ inauguration contained material from B&J Fabrics, tenants since 1958.
Second, the Times could have bought this land from its owners. The Times, in fact, “did not speak with individual property owners,” spokesman Toby Usnik told the New York Sun’s Julia Levy. “We’re not developers, and we’re not interested in being developers,” Usnik added. “We’re a media company.”
Instead, the Times and its partner, Forest City Ratner Companies, had the ESD condemn these properties. “We will require you to relocate within the next few months,” declared an August 19 ESD letter to tenants. It also told them to redirect their rent payments to the ESD in the interim. These companies’ landlords, meanwhile, must pay their mortgages without the benefit of cash-flow from their occupants’ rent checks!
Finally, the Times’s taxpayer-subsidized sweetheart deal would make Donald Trump grind his teeth in envy. Its full exposure for the land is capped at $85 million, “at least a 25 percent discount,” M.I.T. real-estate-finance professor W. Tod McGrath estimated in The Village Voice. (“We are purchasing the lease at fair market value,” Times spokesman Toby Usnik insists.) Any excess acquisition costs may be claimed as credits against 85 percent of rent payments to ESD in lieu of property taxes. The Times and Ratner secured $21.6 million in additional state and local tax breaks. And as the Times’s David Dunlap reported, the building will include 40 percent more square footage than zoning regulations normally allow.
“It’s pretty horrible the whole way this was done,” Scot Cohen of B&J Fabrics laments. He sits beside a functional, 77-year-old cash register his grandfather bought when he started this family business in 1940. “I think it’s quite unfair that the mighty and the powerful get to push people like myself around, and that the state can just kind of come over and basically take things away from people. It doesn’t seem fair, especially in a democracy.”
“Particularly in the short term,” Cohen fears his business will suffer if his company must move and lose contact with neighborhood customers. “Without a decent short term,” he adds, “you may not have a long term.”
“As long as I have a memory, this store has been our breadbasket,” says Arnold Hatters’s Mark Rubin after steam-blocking a customer’s new fedora by hand. The Rubins’ shop opened on Eighth Avenue in 1960. The family has sold hats at various locations around Times Square for 76 years. “It’s what’s sent me and my siblings to college. It’s what paid the mortgage…It’s home. My home’s being taken away from me. And not for the public good.”
“The New York Times is obviously making out, and who’s suffering?” Rubin wonders. “The local businessmen. The lower and middle class. The guys that are here working six, seven days a week to make ends meet. We are the ones that are being displaced and inconvenienced and ripped off.”
In a March report for the libertarian Institute for Justice — a Washington-based, legal foundation — Dana Berliner illustrated how large corporations routinely get government to snatch private property on their behalf. Hoping to erect a parking structure, eight Las Vegas casinos orchestrated the condemnation of a commercial building an elderly widow’s husband purchased to finance her retirement. The city of Hurst, Texas forced ten couples to abandon their homes to speed the expansion of the private North East Mall. Among these 20 people, four suffered heart attacks and three more died during the ensuing litigation.
Such human suffering should have made the sensitive liberals at the New York Times weep. Instead, they checked their balance sheets and got in on the action.