M'ville Expansion Clears Last Major Hurdle, State Approves Eminent Domain

Clearing the way for Columbia's Manhattanville campus expansion, the Empire State Development Corporation unanimously voted to invoke eminent domain on private commercial properties in the project area.

The decision was the culmination of months of fierce controversy over how the University would obtain land within the campus construction site if the owners refused to sell.

Eminent domain will allow the state to seize properties from two Manhattanville holdouts—Nick Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage, and the Singh family, which operates two gas stations in the area­—in exchange for market-rate compensation.

The state will then transfer ownership of the land to Columbia under the premise that the University will put it to better civil use. Columbia officials have consistently said they need control of all the property within the project area to complete the Manhattanville campus according to the plans that were approved by the New York City Council in 2007.

The 17-acre expansion zone encompasses four blocks from 129th to 133rd streets between Broadway and 12th Avenue as well as property north of 125th Street and east of Broadway from 131st to 134th streets.

“We are pleased that the ESDC has approved the general project plan,” University spokesperson Victoria Benitez said after the vote.

Both Columbia and ESDC maintain that the expansion will benefit the community and that the University will be a more civic-minded neighbor than a typical developer.

“Columbia is one of New York’s largest employers, and this project will generate tens of thousands of jobs,” ESDC spokesperson Warner Johnston said.

But some residents question whether the project is a legitimate application of eminent domain, which allows private properties to be seized by the state for the “public good.”

“There is no good for the public. It’s only good for Columbia,” Gurnam Singh, co-owner of the Singh gas stations, said.

Another point of contention was the question of “blight.” For the state to use its power of eminent domain, an area must first be deemed “blighted,” a condition of economic disrepair beyond potential for relief by natural market forces.

An ESDC study released this July gave Manhattanville that designation, which elicited criticism from a number of local residents and business owners.

“If there is blight, it is Columbia-created blight,” said David Smith, the Singh family’s attorney. “They [Columbia] own the vast percentage of property in the area. This is a problem of their creation.”

Maria Cassidy, deputy general counsel for ESDC, said that the project will “address the city’s need for cultural, educational, and civic facilities,” “revitalize the local landscape,” and establish “a global center for education and scientific research with a shared infrastructure comparable to those being constructed by Columbia’s peer institutions in other states.”

Cassidy also noted that eminent domain will be applied only to commercial properties, and that the seven apartment buildings in the area will be unaffected “at any time while they remain occupied by residential occupants.” She explained that residential units in primarily nonresidential buildings will be protected until 2018.

Norman Siegel, the attorney for Nick Sprayregen, called the assertion that residents would not be affected “horrid doublespeak,” arguing that thousands of residents could be forced out indirectly as construction begins and the area’s socioeconomic makeup changes.

“If I give you my money after you put a gun to my head, that doesn’t mean I voluntarily gave you the money,” State Senator Bill Perkins (D-West Harlem) said, echoing Siegel’s argument. “The word ‘voluntary’ is perhaps not the appropriate way to ask that question.”

The vote was largely expected, and several community members present at its announcement criticized what they saw as an illusion of public input in the process.

“This was just another dog and pony show,” said Gwen Goodwin, an East Harlem resident and the chair of the Coalition to Save P.S. 109. “It was just a different venue for people to speak to the wall and have the government dismiss us.”

At the public hearing preceding the vote, West Harlem Local Development Corporation official Donald Notice called for more transparency from ESDC.

Notice said that WHLDC had “requested the opportunity to review changes to the general project plan before this meeting, and we were not given the opportunity to” and suggested that ESDC postpone its vote until January to allow interested parties time to review a modified version of the University’s project plan.

While Notice’s request was rejected, the battle over eminent domain may continue, as opponents suggested they would take their objections to court.

Sprayregen will file a lawsuit this week appealing the ESDC decision, with the help of Siegel. “We have no alternative now but to bring a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality and legality of the use of eminent domain in the Columbia plan,” Siegel said in December. “This lawsuit will be a test case with regard to the use of eminent domain and the methodology and lack of standards that were used in finding that Manhattanville was a blighted community.”

“We are determined to continue the fight,” Singh attorney Smith said last month. “We really have no choice but to sue. We will work in tandem with the Sprayregens and Tuck-It-Away and Norman Siegel. We are aligned, and we’ll continue to be so.” How their initial reactions to the vote will translate into legal actions now remains unclear, though, as neither Smith nor the Singhs could be reached to confirm whether they are signing on to Sprayregen’s suit.

Walter South, an urban planner and former member of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation, predicted in December that such a case would have a fair chance of succeeding.

“I think there’s a very good chance, if this thing does go to the Supreme Court, that the Supreme Court is going to say something is seriously flawed here,” South said.

ESDC officials acknowledged the strength of the opposition but defended the validity of their vote.

“There has been a lot of support for this by the public,” Johnston explained. “There is opposition, but there is a tremendous amount of support.”

Kim Kirschenbaum contributed reporting to this article.

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