Updated 6:35 p.m.
The nation’s highest court has decided not to reconsider the legality of eminent domain for Columbia’s campus expansion, marking the end of a two-year legal battle between the state and the remaining private landowners in Manhattanville.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision to deny the property owners’ appeal—the last recourse for Nick Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage, and gas station owners Gurnam Singh and Parminder Kaur, who have refused for the past six years to sell their land to the University.
This gives a clear green light for the state to use eminent domain on behalf of Columbia’s 17-acre campus expansion in West Harlem. The Supreme Court will not reassess a June ruling from the New York State Court of Appeals, which said that the state could transfer private property to the University in exchange for market-rate compensation for the current owners.
University President Lee Bollinger said in an interview that this decision marks an important transition for Columbia.
"I think it is a symbolic moment as well as a particular victory on the litigation," Bollinger said. "It is really the capstone of years of process. ... It’s a very important moment in the history of the University."
University officials have repeatedly said that the remaining properties—which represent about 9 percent of the expansion zone—are essential to Columbia's vision for the Manhattanville campus, which will stretch from 125th to 134th streets, bordered by Broadway and 12th Avenue.
But for the property owners, this is an unhappy conclusion to a long fight.
"It's a horrendous feeling," Sprayregen said Monday morning. "I’m sure it’s going to get worse as it [condemnation] physically starts happening."
When reached by phone Monday afternoon, Kaur said she was too upset to talk.
"I am feeling terrible," she said, in tears. "This is a heartbreaker. ... I can't believe they are taking my property."
The legal fight began in 2008, when the Empire State Development Corporation—the state agency with the power to invoke eminent domain—deemed the neighborhood “blighted,” paving the way for eminent domain, which is only legal for projects that serve the “public good.”
Sprayregen, Singh, and Kaur sued the state after the ESDC approval, and a year later, the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division ruled in a surprise decision that eminent domain in this case was in fact illegal, saying that the project was for the benefit of an “elite” private institution and thus did not qualify as a public good.
ESDC immediately appealed to the highest court in the state, the Court of Appeals, which overturned the Appellate Division ruling and argued in favor of eminent domain for Columbia’s campus. This ruling now stands uncontested.
"We are extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court of the United States decided not to hear this important eminent domain case," said Norman Siegel, Sprayregen’s attorney and the former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "The denial ... means that the abuse of eminent domain in New York stands."
Columbia Law School professor and property expert Richard Briffault said that this decision officially removes the legal question from the project. "They’ve had a green light for a while. This just confirms it," he said.
ESDC officials said on Monday that the agency was pleased with the Supreme Court's decision.
"This victory represents a significant step toward achieving the many goals of the project, including strengthening New York as an international center for premier education and academic research programs, improving facilities and infrastructure within the footprint and the surrounding community, generating thousands of jobs for New Yorkers and creating much-needed open space in the neighborhood," ESDC spokeswoman Elizabeth Mitchell said in an email.
The project now stands at a crossroads, as Columbia has already begun to push forward with demolition and construction on property it already owns. The first stage of the project, scheduled to be completed by 2015, will include new space for the Business School, the School of the Arts, and the Jerome L. Greene Science Center for Mind, Brain, and Behavior.
Bollinger said that, on a personal level, this decision is particularly significant.
"There’s no question I’ve devoted myself to this conception of the future of the University," he said. "It all follows from a belief that one of the problems that interferes with Columbia’s potential ... is space, and this effectively solves that problem."
The Supreme Court, which discussed the case on Friday and decided not to grant certiorari—the official term for agreeing to hear a case—has ruled in favor of eminent domain in the past. Most recently, in 2005, the court held in the landmark Kelo v. New London decision that eminent domain could be used to transfer property from one private owner to another for economic development purposes.
The chances of the court agreeing to reconsider eminent domain were low, since it typically grants about 1 percent of all petitions for certiorari.
Sprayregen said that, though he knew the court was unlikely to hear the case, it is hard to believe that he may soon actually lose his property, considering what he believes is clear evidence against the University. He said that Columbia, among other unfair practices, created blight through intentional neglect of its own properties, intimidated business owners with the threat of eminent domain, and colluded with ESDC.
"It is really unfathomable that I’ve ended up where I am," he said. "I still look back at times and think that it's almost impossible that this has occurred."
Siegel said that he and Sprayregen will discuss with Singh and Kaur what their next step will be.
"For more than six years, Nick Sprayregen and his family engaged in a principled challenge to the violation of his constitutional rights," Siegel said. "We had hoped for a different result."
David Smith, the attorney for Singh and Kaur, said his clients will be moving forward with litigation to set the value of their property.
"I will be fighting to get them maximum value for their properties," he said. "All we can do is wait to see what happens."
Check back for updates.