Armin Rosen, a Columbia University student journalist and senior editor at The Current, the university’s “journal of contemporary politics, cultural, & Jewish affairs,” has a long and highly detailed account of Columbia’s eminent domain abuse in its attempt to control the West Harlem neighborhood of Manhattanville, where the university wants to build a fancy new research campus. As Rosen notes, Columbia officials behaved less than honorably with local property owners:
Columbia has a policy of not commenting on its past negotiations with former Manhattanville landowners, and the public has no means of knowing exactly how the state’s explicit willingness to use eminent domain on Columbia’s behalf aided the university in property acquisition. But the secondary record proves that, in the words of Manhattanville activist Andrew Lyubarsky, CC ’09, “Columbia used eminent domain as a sort of sword of Damocles hanging over landowners’ heads if they weren’t going to sell.” This was confirmed by [Manhattanville business owner Ramon] Diaz, who maintains close relationships with the landowners-turned-University tenants in the project footprint. “Columbia was using the threat of eminent domain before they even had it approved,” says Diaz. “When people were being difficult they would always insinuate that they were going to get a lot less if [the ESDC] could exercise eminent domain.” And once they had sold, Columbia made them sign a “gag order” which Diaz says extends to private conversations as well as public statements (he suggested that he would not have been able to talk to me at all if he had already cut a deal with Columbia).
There’s plenty more ugliness to the story, including overwhelming evidence that the Empire State Development Corporation (the state agency which wields the power of eminent domain) actively colluded with Columbia in order to produce the very conditions that would then allow the state to seize property on the university’s behalf. Thankfully, New York’s courts have actually been paying attention. In a sharp ruling last December, the state’s Supreme Court Appellate Division condemned Columbia and the ESDC’s actions in no uncertain terms. As Justice James Catterson put it:
the blight designation in the instant case is mere sophistry. It was utilized by ESDC years after the scheme was hatched to justify the employment of eminent domain but this project has always primarily concerned a massive capital project for Columbia. Indeed, it is nothing more than economic redevelopment wearing a different face.
The next step is the state’s highest court, which I'm sad to say recently gave the thumbs up to eminent domain abuse in the Atlantic Yards case. Perhaps this time they’ll get it right.