After more than six years of buildup, the fate of eminent domain in Manhattanville came down to 45 minutes in a small courtroom in Albany.
On Tuesday, the seven judges of the New York State Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, heard oral arguments on whether the state should be allowed to invoke eminent domain—the process of seizing private properties for a “civic purpose” in exchange for market-rate compensation—on Columbia’s behalf. The University plans to build a 17-acre campus in West Harlem, but two business owners, who represent about 9 percent of the land in the expansion zone, have refused to sell their properties.
Former New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel argued on behalf of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage owner Nick Sprayregen and gas station owners Gurnam Singh and Parminder Kaur, and attorney John Casolaro represented the Empire State Development Corporation, the body that approved eminent domain for the project in December 2008.
Sprayregen, Singh, and Kaur challenged that approval in court in January 2009, and last December, the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division declared eminent domain in Manhattanville illegal in a 3-2 decision, which ESDC immediately appealed.
That brought the fight to the Court of Appeals, where Siegel called on the judges to uphold the Appellate Division ruling on several bases: one, that ESDC declared the neighborhood “blighted” in “bad faith” and based on faulty methodology; two, that there was “collusion” between ESDC and Columbia, because ESDC hired a company to conduct a blight study when that company was also a contractor for the University; three, that the expansion of a private university does not constitute a “civic purpose”; and four, that Sprayregen’s due process rights were violated when ESDC refused to turn over certain documents requested under the Freedom of Information Law in time for them to be included in the record for this case.
Casolaro, meanwhile, urged the court to reverse the Appellate Division ruling because, he said, the blight study was conducted fairly and impartially; Columbia had a right to participate in the process and to collaborate with ESDC; educational institutions fall under the civic use definition in the Urban Development Corporation Act, regardless of whether they are public or private; and Sprayregen was given access to all relevant documents that could have affected the outcome of the case.
In his presentation, Siegel honed in on issues surrounding blight—a condition of disrepair beyond the potential for natural relief—and emphasized that his objection was not to the finding of blight itself, but to the methodology ESDC used to make that finding. Echoing the Appellate Division’s assertion that “the time has come to categorically reject eminent domain takings solely based on underutilization,” he argued that the criteria ESDC used to declare the area blighted were skewed toward a particular conclusion.
“The studies should be disregarded because the methodology was biased,” he said. “You can’t just isolate conditions. Deteriorated structures are not enough [to constitute blight]. Because there’s garbage in a building, the neighborhood is blighted?”
Casolaro stated in response that no one had disputed the legitimacy of the materials produced for the blight study—photographs, for instance—and that there was no collusion inherent in choosing the consulting firm Allee King Rosen & Fleming to conduct the blight study, despite its ties to Columbia. He argued that the term "blighted" does not necessarily have to connote a place completely run to the ground, echoing a recent Court of Appeals decision that ruled in favor of eminent domain in the Atlantic Yards commercial development project in Brooklyn and concluded that “blighted areas are not limited to slums,” and that it is not necessary for “a finding of blight ... [to] be based upon conditions replicating those ... in the midst of the Great Depression.”
“ESDC reasonably relied on AKRF as it has done many times in the past, and its decisions have been affirmed by this court and other courts," Casolaro said.
The judges grilled both attorneys with rapid-fire questions, often interjecting mid-sentence with follow-up questions. They were particularly interrogative concerning the concept of a civic purpose, a term for which the two parties presented opposing definitions. Siegel claimed—as the Appellate Division ruling stated—that “you need public education” to constitute an educational civic project, but Casolaro countered, “The legislature has indicated that this [the Columbia expansion] serves a public purpose. There is a need for educational facilities in the state, and the involvement of private institutions is appropriate.”
Casolaro sought to distance his argument from that made in the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2005 Kelo v. City of New London decision, because while the court approved eminent domain in that instance, Justice Anthony Kennedy's concurring opinion left open the possibility that future eminent domain pursuits could be rejected if the project in question selectively benefited a particular party—something the Manhattanville holdouts have alleged in this case. Casolaro argued that Kelo concerned economic development projects and that this is instead a land use improvement project. However, economic development has been one of the main points in Columbia's campaign, and Kelo set a broad precedent: Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his majority opinion that land can be transferred from one private owner to another through eminent domain to promote “economic rejuvenation,” thus expanding the definition of what may constitute a “public use."
“We cannot say that public ownership is the sole method of promoting the public purposes of community redevelopment projects,” Stevens wrote in his opinion. Casolaro effectively drew on this argument, stating that the public may ultimately be better served by a private than a public enterprise.
“What-if” scenarios dominated much of the questioning, as the judges appeared to test whether the attorneys would apply their legal reasoning consistently to all cases. One judge asked Siegel if he would consider eminent domain more acceptable if it were City College—a public institution—expanding, instead of Columbia. He answered that it would be. “It changes the dynamic,” he said. “They [Columbia] are a private institution, and therefore they can’t become a civic project.”
The judges posed a hypothetical question to Casolaro as well, asking if he believed the arguments he was making in favor of eminent domain for Columbia could be applied to the expansion of other private, elite schools such as Dalton on the Upper East Side or Collegiate on the Upper West Side. Many in the audience seemed surprised by his response that it could be, and in a press conference after the hearing, State Senator Bill Perkins—who represents Manhattanville—sharply criticized the idea that the expansion of such schools could constitute a civic use.
In his last point, Siegel argued that Sprayregen’s due process rights were violated when he did not receive all the documents he requested from ESDC in time to incorporate them into his argument in this case. In a separate case last December, the Court of Appeals ordered ESDC to release seven specific documents that it had previously withheld, and it did—but not before the deadline for submitting materials for consideration in the eminent domain suit had already passed.
But Casolaro said of the documents ESDC refused to provide, “They’re not material to their arguments and not material to the issues in this case.” There was no due process violation because there is no reason to believe the documents in question would have changed the outcome of the case, he said.
Beyond the speaker’s dais and the dialogue between the lawyers and the judges, a large audience gathered to watch the case unfold. Well over 100 people crowded into the courtroom, and even more were relegated to an overflow room with a closed-circuit television. Many attendees were West Harlem residents, and a large number were members of local activist groups such as the Coalition to Preserve Community. CPC and other organizations sponsored a full bus from Harlem to Albany, as did Perkins, who has been an outspoken critic of the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville.
These attendees, who gathered at the door to the courtroom well before it opened and jostled for prime positions in line, expressed a range of emotions, from anger at Columbia and ESDC to confidence in a legal victory.
Nellie Bailey, president of the Harlem Tenants Council, echoed Siegel in distinguishing this case from that of Atlantic Yards, the mixed-use commercial development project in Brooklyn for which the Court of Appeals affirmed the legality of eminent domain last November.
“The key difference is the decision from the Appellate Division, and the thousands of documents that establish conclusively the collusion [between Columbia and ESDC],” Bailey said. “I think it’s going to be very difficult for the court to ignore that. This is not a subjective case. These are the facts as they were ascertained.”
Even though a ruling isn’t expected for another six weeks or so, according to Siegel, opponents of eminent domain emerged from the courtroom feeling victorious.
“We did win here today,” CPC member Tom DeMott, CC ’80, said at the post-hearing press conference. “We won because we’re all out here as a culmination of eight years of resistance.”
“We won,” Perkins echoed. “All the lawyers, all of us, have proven that the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability with regard to the eminent domain process is something that needs to be changed, and we have successfully challenged that.”
"The law makes it very difficult for the businesses to prevail, but the facts of the case make it very difficult to enforce the state law," said Ben Totushek, GS and a member of Columbia's Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification. "I think we have a new precedent on our hands."
Before the hearing, both Sprayregen and Siegel repeated a longtime catchphrase, saying they were “cautiously optimistic” that the court would rule in their favor.
“We’re feeling good,” Sprayregen said. “If this court takes the time to review the briefs like the first court [Appellate Division] did, and really looks at the subject matter, I think they will make a similar decision.” At the post-hearing press conference, he added, “I think it went very well. … But the point is, no matter what happens today, we need to continue to fight for our private property rights.”
Siegel told Spectator after the press conference that despite his optimism, “You can’t read the tea leaves based on an oral argument.”
Several University administrators attended the hearing, but did not comment. Columbia has traditionally declined to comment on this lawsuit, as it is not technically a party in it, and ESDC has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.