Civil Liberties

Won't You Be My Neighbor?


For the past several years, Nicholas Sprayregen has stood his ground against the combined forces of Columbia University and the powerful quasi-public entity known as the Empire State Development Corporation. At issue is Spraygregen's refusal to sell four buildings (all part of his Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage business) to Columbia so the University can proceed with a 17-acre west Harlem expansion that president Lee Bolinger describes as necessary for Columbia to "continue to be one of the great Universities of the world." From the outset, Columbia has dangled the threat of eminent domain over the heads of Sprayregen and his fellow property holders, scaring all but two into cutting their losses and selling their land. But as Sprayregen told The New York Times:

This is about the powerful growing more powerful at the expense of those who have less. Columbia is not a public university; what they're doing by threatening to use eminent domain is as unethical from a business perspective as anything I've ever come across. Property rights abuse is running rampant, but what's unique in this instance is that eminent domain always seems to be used against the down-and-out, people who can't afford to fight back in a meaningful way. I can. But I think it's anti-American that I'm probably on the losing side.

Sadly, he's probably all too right about that last part. Back in July, the Empire State Development Corporation declared the entire 17-acre site to be "blighted," which is the invariable prelude to eminent domain proceedings. Today's New York Sun reports that Columbia is pushing hard for the property, declaring that this "vital" project requires city and state support. Sprayregen, whose lawyer is the famed civil libertarian Norman Siegel, promises to take the fight to the Supreme Court. Here's hoping this one turns out better than Kelo.