News | West Harlem

Columbia maps future in Manhattanville despite lawsuit challenging eminent domain

Upon arriving at Columbia’s campus in Morningside Heights, you may begin hearing about another one being built in Manhattanville.

This area in West Harlem is the site of the University’s long-term expansion plan, extending from 129th to 133rd streets between Broadway and Twelfth Avenue, and including a few properties east from 131st to 134th streets. While essentially the project is a done deal, it persists as the source of much passion—and sometimes vitriol—on campus and throughout the surrounding neighborhoods.

Columbia plans to build a new, 17-acre campus for primarily graduate student and research facilities, and the first stage of construction is slated for completion by 2015. The University maintains this will keep Columbia competitive, enrich the community by bringing in the resources of a top research institution, and revive a blighted neighborhood.

But opponents, such as local activist group Coalition to Preserve Community and the Columbia-based Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification argue against many aspects of the project, most notably the inevitable displacement of residents and businesses in and around Manhattanville.

In December 2008, New York state authorized the use of eminent domain in the project area, meaning that within the 17-acre expansion zone, the state can seize property from private landowners— who would be compensated market-rate value—and transfer ownership of those properties to the University. All but two business owners have made deals with Columbia to sell or swap their property. Those who haven’t, and would thus be subject to eminent domain, are Tuck-It-Away Storage owner Nick Sprayregen and gas station owners Gurnam and Parminder Singh. Sprayregen filed a lawsuit challenging eminent domain, but is still waiting on a ruling.

University officials maintain that eminent domain will be used on only businesses, not residents. But critics of the expansion fear that people who live around the project site will be forced out indirectly by gentrification and rising costs of living.

The project has gone through a lengthy review process since it was first proposed in 2004. The local Community Board 9, the City Planning Commission, and the City Council have all voted on the plan. CB9 proposed an alternative that, it said, would allow Columbia to expand while addressing community concerns. But at the end of 2007, the city approved both Columbia’s version of the plan and CB9’s, combining each in a way that ultimately satisfied Columbia’s goals and not those of the board.

Opposition has continued ever since, though the University has obtained all necessary approvals for the project and can legally proceed with construction.

In May, Columbia released a $150 million community benefits agreement, which designates funding for affordable housing, a public school, and other local programs while setting aside an “unencumbered” $76 million for the West Harlem Local Development Corporation to spend as it chooses.

Community Board 9 voted against the agreement, citing that it did not offer enough. But the LDC had the authority to approve it, and did so days later.

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lpuig posted on

Emnent Domain will not be used on rediential until 2018, read the general project plan submitted by Columbia University. This does not mean residential will be free of the use or abuse of eminent domain. Columbia slipped another one by the community and its leaders.

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confused12345 posted on

Who exaclty lives in this area - extending from 129th to 133rd streets between Broadway and Twelfth Avenue? All this talk about eminent domain against residents. Are there any residents in that area? I think not.

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Anonymous posted on

Tax-exempt Columbia University has undemocratically spent large amounts of money lobbying New York City and New York State government agencies and officials to get its latest landgrabbing scheme approved. But a more democratic approach to determine how the 17 acres of West Harlem land the Columbia Administration has grabbed should be developed would be to have a referendum in New York City in which all city residents could vote on whether or not Columbia University should be allowed to proceed with its undemocratic campus expansion project, despite local neighborhood objections.

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Anonymous posted on

bobf- many NYC residents pay little to no taxes- Columbia as one of the city's largest employers has a lot of economic clout. So might equals right and that's the way the world works. These holdouts Singh and Sprayregen are extortionists- kick 'em to the curb!

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Anonymous posted on

alum--But many NYC small businesses, corporations, real estate firms and residents that don't receive $393 million in public money from the U.S. federal government (like Columbia University does) are not tax-exempt like Columbia University.

And although Columbia claims to be a "non-profit" educational institution, according to its Form 990 financial filing for 2007, Columbia University's total revenues of $3,713,396,304 for the year beginning 7/1/07 and ending 6/30/08 exceeded its total expenses of $3,054,105,634 by over $659 million during that fiscal year. So why shouldn't Columbia University be taxed at the same corporation tax rate and property tax rate as a for-profit New York City multi-billion dollar corporation?

If you add the amount of public funds that Columbia University received in local and state government grants between July 2007 and June 2008 to the amount of public funds that Columbia University received from the federal government, you'll also notice that much of Columbia's economic clout is based on it being given $607,519,000 in total government grants (as well as being the recipient of large sums of "charitable contributions" from tax-exempt foundations like George Soros' Open Society Institute, which gave a "charity grant" that exceeded $450,000 to Columbia's Trustees to help fund the Columbia Journalism Review magazine).

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