Public Uses and Abuses: Eminent Domain in and around the Empire State



It shone as a beacon of hope in the darkest depths of the Great Depression. Above the ragged apple peddlers and the legions of unemployed New Yorkers rose the greatest commercial real estate complex ever built by humankind. Radio City, as it was called in the early 1930s, was an agglomeration of Art Deco office spires; studios and theaters (including Radio City Music Hall, which even before its opening was the most famous auditorium in the world); architecturally bold features such as parking garages built inside towers; and elegant shops of luxury items from France, Italy, and Britain. It was finished off with modern decoration and dramatic landscaping by many of the world’s leading artists and designers. The project provided immediate work to thousands of underemployed welders, masons, painters, and electricians, and offered hope of an economic recovery to millions of other struggling Americans during the economically bleakest years. When the original plans ran afoul of a homeowner who wouldn’t sell—not even to the richest family in the world—the project was redesigned to build around the holdout’s townhouse. The grouping of buildings that we now call Rockefeller Center remains the heart of New York City to this day. From the wintertime skaters under the famous “golden boy” statue to the countless skyward offices—including the TV studios that filmed shows from Ed Sullivan to 30 Rock—the midtown complex still outshines almost any other commercial development in America.


Real Estate General Motor Subway Station Empire State Appellate Court 
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Introduction to eminent domain

  1. Origin of term eminent domain: Hugeo De Grotius, De Jure Belli et Pacis (1625).Google Scholar
  2. Illinois Central case: Joseph D. Kearney and Thomas W. Merrill, “The Origins of the Public Trust Doctrine: What Really Happened in Illinois Central,” University of Chicago Law Review 71 (2004) 799.Google Scholar

Berman and its critics

  1. David H. Harris, Jr., “The Battle for Black Land: Fighting Eminent Domain,” National Bar Ass’n Magazine (March–April, 1995), at 12. Berman v. Parker, 348 U.S. 26 (1954).Google Scholar
  2. Wendell E. Pritchett, “The ‘Public Menace’ of Blight: Urban Renewal and the Private Uses of Eminent Domain,” Yale Law & Policy Review 22 (2003) 32–36.Google Scholar


  1. Jenny Nolan, “Auto Plant vs. Neighborhood: The Poletown Battle,” Detroit News, Jan. 27, 2000, Scholar

The city’s “dependence” on business

  1. Paul Kantor, The Dependent City: Revisited (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  2. Derek Kravitz and V. Dion Haynes, “Northrop Grumman Narrows Choices for Its Washington Area Headquarters,” Washington Post, April 1, 2010, Scholar
  3. Criticism of publicly financed sports stadiums: Charles C. Euchner, Playing the Field (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).Google Scholar

Rockefeller Center and William Cromwell’s holdout

  1. Daniel Okrent, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center (New York: Viking, 2003).Google Scholar

New York’s blight laws

  1. New York State Urban Development Corporation Act, McKinney’s Unconsolidated laws of New York secs. 6250–6260.Google Scholar
  2. Yonkers Community Development Agency v. Morris, 37 N.Y.2d 478, 481 (1975) (setting the breadth of eminent domain for redevelopment as wide as the police power).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Paul Boudreaux 2011

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