For some opponents of eminent domain in Manhattanville, the time has come to refocus the fight.
About 40 neighborhood residents and activists gathered on Monday night at a meeting of local group Coalition to Preserve Community to discuss the next steps they should take in response to Columbia’s planned 17-acre campus expansion in West Harlem.
For years, the Manhattanville battle has been making its way through the legal system in response to the refusal of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage owner Nick Sprayregen and gas station owners Gurnam Singh and Parminder Kaur to sell their land to the University.
A June ruling from the New York State Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, held that the use of eminent domain—the process by which the state can seize private property for the “public good,” with market-rate compensation for the owner—is legal in Manhattanville.
This month, the property holdouts petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case, but the odds of the court accepting the case are low.
For some neighborhood residents who have continued to oppose eminent domain, the latest ruling means they’ll need to change their approaches.
“The legal battle to protect the businesses and the residents in the immediate expansion area is winding down,” Tom DeMott, CC ‘80, and a CPC founder, said, speaking at St. Mary’s Church on 126th Street. “We spent eight years fighting against eminent domain, and as long as there’s a case going we will support it and defend it, but we also want to focus on these issues of displacement and the issue of the biohazard,” he added, referring to concerns over how Columbia’s construction of new labs could affect the surrounding area.
The meeting comes at a time when the University is actively pushing forward with the expansion: University President Lee Bollinger said at last week’s University Senate meeting, “We are ready to begin creating the new campus in Manhattanville.”
A handful of students and alumni also came to the event on Monday, with several expressing interest in re-evaluating and rethinking the process going forward.
“My feeling is that a new approach in terms of campus organizing, in terms of community organizing, in terms of the engagement with the elected officials—all of that has to be re-evaluated,” said Julie Schneyer, BC ’08, who works with CPC.
Trevis Joyner, CC ’11, said it was a priority to him to make the student body less apathetic to the expansion’s affects on the neighborhood. “Unfortunately, a lot of kids at Columbia … don’t really think about Manhattanville at all,” he said.
Several issues were raised during the event, including concerns of displacement, Columbia’s commitments to the neighborhood through its Community Benefits Agreement, and the creation of University labs.
Columbia has repeatedly said it will not use eminent domain to obtain residential properties, though some residents are worried about secondary displacement as a result of the expansion.
While the meeting focused less on the continued legal battle, State Senator Bill Perkins, who represents West Harlem, made a brief appearance and advocated for changes to New York eminent domain law.
“We do need some reforms of the eminent domain laws so that what has happened with Columbia cannot continue to happen,” Perkins said.
The Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, another CPC member, said a major problem is that Columbia’s Community Benefits Agreement does not do enough to provide for the neighborhood.
“It’s an uphill struggle, a huge uphill struggle, and you’re looking at the disparity between a very low-income, disorganized community and a university with literally billions of dollars in its endowment,” Kooperkamp said. “Those aren’t even odds.”
The University declined to comment on the meeting.