ESDC Prepares to Acquire CU Properties

In the midst of fierce debate over Columbia’s campus expansion, discussion of eminent domain has centered around the dwindling number of property holdouts in the area—now down to two. But other spots in the neighborhood have been largely left out of eminent domain conversations even though it affects many tenants of Columbia-owned buildings.

A Dec. 18 statement of “determination and findings” issued by the Empire State Development Corporation was mailed to all affected business owners, listing dozens of Columbia-owned properties as potential targets for state seizure. The document raises questions about what eminent domain will mean, in practical terms, for the tenants of properties on which it is invoked.

Under ordinary circumstances, a tenant’s lease provides him with binding rights to a property so long as the tenant remains in good standing on rent and other obligations. Yet the invocation of eminent domain may allow Columbia to terminate such leases before the scheduled expiration date, thus freeing the properties for construction even if friendly deals cannot be reached with the tenants.

The memorandum listed 55 lots that “would also be subject to acquisition by ESDC for the Project.” New York City’s Automated City Register Information System Web site confirmed that 35 of those properties are registered to the Trustees of Columbia University.

The list of properties to be seized includes a number of vacant buildings owned by the University as well as several businesses—Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Hudson Moving and Storage, and others—with whose owners Columbia has established friendly relocation deals. All owners of land seized through eminent domain will be compensated according to the market value of their property. But with nearly every property within the expansion zone listed as potentially subject to eminent domain, even vacant Columbia-owned buildings, the ESDC’s statement of intent to seize the properties may be a legal formality.

Gerald Benjamin, dean of liberal arts and sciences at the State University of New York at New Paltz and an expert on urban issues, explained that this could smooth Columbia’s development process. “It may be that the use of eminent domain would make easier Columbia’s vacating of its own properties—with the public purpose, it be argued, served,” he wrote in an e-mail

For eminent domain to be invoked, the state’s seizure of land must further the “public good.” According to the ESDC memorandum on Columbia’s plan, the expansion meets this criterion because “as part of the educational mission of Columbia, the project will foster important scientific research and knowledge in such areas as neurological disorders and systems biology to benefit the public.”

In response to an inquiry about the state’s seizure of Columbia-owned properties, ESDC spokesperson Lisa Willner wrote, “The GPP [General Project Plan] identifies the blocks and lots that are subject to condemnation in each of the two project phases as well as the limitations we have placed on what ESDC will take.”

These limitations include assurances that ESDC will not invoke eminent domain on two religious buildings in the area, on residences that remain occupied by residential tenants, or on residential units within otherwise nonresidential buildings until 2018.

Ramon Diaz, the owner of Floridita Tapas Bar & Restaurant on 125th Street and Broadway, leases three storefronts for his restaurant, tapas bar, and bakery. The lease on the restaurant does not expire until 2015 and will have to be terminated early in order for Columbia to utilize the property for the expansion project unless a mutually acceptable relocation deal can be reached.

“Columbia is going to have to request condemnation of their own property through the use of eminent domain,” Diaz said. “If they request the state to condemn their own building, then they can do that [terminate a lease].”

“Columbia is working closely with commercial tenants in good standing to provide the opportunity for them to continue business in their current locations until their property is required for construction,” University spokesperson Victoria Benitez wrote in an e-mail.

“We look forward to having active leases as long as possible,” Robert Kasdin, Columbia senior executive vice president, said in response to a question on how the University would handle properties with long-term leases if relocation agreements with the lessees could not be reached. “We are going to continue to work to relocate businesses in good standing to locations either in or near the project area.”

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