Opponents of the use of eminent domain in Columbia’s Manhattanville campus expansion have won a battle for the first time after a long struggle.
The New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division ruled Thursday that state seizure of private property in the 17-acre expansion zone is illegal, dealing a harsh blow to the University’s vision for development. The Empire State Development Corporation, which approved eminent domain for the project last December, intends to appeal the decision.
“We hope for the ESDC to prevail,” University President Lee Bollinger said of the appeal, noting that this will “not hold us back.”
The court ruling
The Appellate Division ruled by a 3-2 vote that the state’s use of eminent domain in Manhattanville “to benefit a private elite education institution is violative of the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution, article 1, § 7 of the New York Constitution, and the ‘first principles of the social contract,’” according to a decision written by Justice James Catterson.
The ruling goes on to fault the state’s blight study of the area—which was used to determine whether Manhattanville is in an economic condition beyond potential for natural repair—as “mere sophistry.” A blight study is required for the invocation of eminent domain, the process by which the state can seize private property for a “public good” in exchange for market-rate compensation. If eminent domain were invoked in Manhattanville, the ESDC would turn the properties over to Columbia, which would compensate the current owners.
The court ruled jointly on two separate cases against the ESDC, filed by each of the property owners in the Manhattanville project site who have not struck deals with the University. One was filed by Tuck-It-Away Storage owner Nick Sprayregen, and the other by gas station owners Gurnam Singh and Parminder Kaur.
The suits, which were heard in May, challenged the approval of eminent domain on several grounds, including that the blight designation was made “in bad faith,” that the state’s definition of blight is unconstitutionally vague, and that the expansion of a private university is not a “civic project,” as required for eminent domain.
Sprayregen also alleged his due process rights were violated when the ESDC denied certain Freedom of Information Law requests, and when the court closed the case record before these requests were fulfilled.
The dissenting opinion, written by Justice Peter Tom, J.P., rejects the ruling’s characterization of the blight study as corrupt and adds, “I do not accept petitioners’ contention that the project neither qualifies as a civic project nor serves a public purpose.”
“We’re thrilled. We were always cautiously optimistic, but we always thought that we probably wouldn’t win,” Sprayregen said after the decision. “The majority of the court obviously saw what we saw, that the whole finding of blight was preposterous and engineered specifically to give all the private property over to Columbia. They’re shining a light finally that collusion and conflicts of interests evident in this relationship between Columbia and the state cannot be allowed to continue, and thus they’re putting a stop to this taking of land by Columbia.”
Kaur said she felt a great sense of relief. “Rich or poor, the government should treat you equally,” she said. “I feel like today is justice.” The Singhs’ 18-year-old daughter Amanjit Kaur added, “We’ve been praying and praying—nonstop praying, keeping hope and faith. Thank God all of that paid off ... This takes a load off our chest.”
David Smith, lawyer for the Singh family, said, “My clients could barely speak because of their excitement. This is their livelihood. This is their well-being.”
Bollinger’s reaction was more reserved, characterizing the ruling as a “situation” that he hopes “will work itself out.” He explained that it is “very important that these properties be included” in the Manhattanville expansion, given that this space encompasses the site of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Building, which has already received funding.
Columbia is not a party in the litigation, though, and he said, “I prefer to let the process play itself out.”
ESDC’s challenge to the decision will go to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. ESDC spokesperson Warner Johnston wrote in an e-mail, “ESDC believes the decision of the Appellate Division, First Department in the matter of the Columbia University Manhattanville Campus to be wrong and inconsistent with established law, as consistently articulated by the New York State Court of Appeals, most recently with respect to ESDC’s Atlantic Yards project.”
The Court of Appeals ruled last week in favor of eminent domain for the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, a case that some expected would set a precedent for the Sprayregen and Singh cases. University officials have sought to steer clear of comparisons to Atlantic Yards, since it is a commercial and residential development. Though administrators followed the case, they characterize Columbia’s project differently, citing the public benefit of University research and community engagement.
In an interview with Spectator last spring, Bollinger responded to criticism of eminent domain use in Manhattanville by saying, “This is a nonprofit educational research institution and we do what we do because there is a public benefit.”
Sprayregen and his lawyer Norman Siegel—former New York Civil Liberties Union director and candidate for Public Advocate this fall—also drew a distinction between the Manhattanville cases and Atlantic Yards. They said they challenged eminent domain on different grounds and had more evidence to substantiate their allegations.
Thursday’s court ruling cited the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, in which land was transferred from one private owner to another to promote “economic rejuvenation,” as Supreme Court Justice John Stevens wrote in his decision. This case has become the signature example of eminent domain seizing land to be privately controlled.
Justice Catterson’s decision stated that the contrast between that case and the plan for Manhattanville “could not be more dramatic.”
Unlike the City of New London, this project “did not endeavor to produce a comprehensive development plan to address a Manhattanville-wide economic depression,” the ruling explains, adding that “Columbia underwrote all costs of studying and planning for what would become a sovereign sponsored campaign of Columbia’s expansion.”
Looking ahead to future precedent, Sprayregen and Siegel have vowed to take their own case to the U.S. Supreme Court if they lose in New York.
“The precedents that are set in this decision are very important to private property owners fighting eminent domain as well as community activists fighting it,” Siegel said.
The eminent domain question
Columbia’s expansion plan calls for construction over a 17-acre site from 125th to 133rd streets, spanning west across Broadway to 12th Avenue, with three properties on Broadway from 131st to 134th streets. The estimated cost to the University is $6.28 billion.
Eminent domain has been a contentious issue since it was introduced, fiercely debated among West Harlem residents, business owners, Columbia administrators, and government officials on the city and state levels. University officials have promised not to seek eminent domain on residential buildings—and individual residential units in primarily non-residential buildings will be protected until 2018—but maintain that acquisition of the commercial properties owned by Sprayregen and the Singhs is essential to realizing the vision for the Manhattanville campus as it was approved by the state.
Sprayregen has spent years—and what has likely reached millions of dollars—fighting the University’s plans on varied fronts. He said that he does not object to the idea of Columbia expanding, but rather to the means of eminent domain.
“We have attempted at every point to reach out to the state and Columbia to try to reach a reasonable compromise,” he said. “We are not against the expansion of the University. Our fight has nothing to do with trying to halt whatever good work they want to do with research and education. It has everything to do with right and wrong and the constitutional issue of use of eminent domain.”
The Singh family’s battle against eminent domain is less concerned with legality than livelihood. For them, a location near major thoroughfares—Broadway, 125th Street, and the Henry Hudson Parkway—is more valuable for their gas station business than market-rate compensation through eminent domain or an alternative site.
Columbia officials decline to comment on ongoing negotiations with Manhattanville property owners.
Building on blight
The court ruling states that “the process employed by ESDC predetermined the unconstitutional outcome, was bereft of facts which established that the neighborhood in question was blighted, and ultimately precluded the petitioners from presenting a full record before either the ESDC or, ultimately, this Court. In short, it is a skein worth unraveling.”
Nellie Bailey, a member of the neighborhood activist group Coalition to Preserve Community—which fought Columbia’s expansion process as it progressed with the motto “No Land Grab!”—noted the broader message of this ruling. “This is of enormous, enormous importance,” she said. “It will surely resonate within the legal community as well as in the marginalized community that has been so victimized.”
Bailey—who is also president of the Harlem Tenants Council—as well as many other local residents, have felt marginalized in the town hall forums and other public meetings that began early in the decade and lasted up to the project’s approval in December 2007. Expansion critics often sensed they were speaking into a vacuum.
But also, this marginalized feeling came as anxiety about the future. The word “gentrification” was called out for every mention of “blight.” Each word—thick with political and economic implications for the population of West Harlem comprised predominantly of low-income, minority families—was drawn into a narrative about what would inevitably become of this area.
But Thursday’s surprising ruling was a message, in strong wording, that nothing is inevitable.
Questioning the legitimacy of the blight designation, the ruling notes that in 2000, Columbia owned just two properties in Manhattanville, but after beginning to draft a vision of the area’s redevelopment with local and city organizations in 2001, the University spent the following year purchasing land. By early October 2003, the ruling states, Columbia controlled 51 percent of the proposed campus site. The University’s critics have attributed blight in the area to alleged negligence by Columbia rather than any natural economic descent, and the ruling paid greater heed to that claim than any other government agency or court has in the past.
Siegel said that in an independent blight study he conducted with Sprayregen, they came to the conclusion that “if there was blight, if the buildings were underutilized, it’s because Columbia created that condition.”
Sam Levin and Amber Tunnell contributed reporting to this article.