Columbia University's Sleazy Eminent Domain Abuse


Jonathan V. Last has a great piece in The Weekly Standard detailing Columbia University's shady efforts to use eminent domain to expand its campus:

[Nick] Sprayregen is one of Columbia's neighbors. He owns Tuck-It-Away Storage, a thriving self-storage business, which has five buildings in Manhattanville. He leases out the ground floors of some of his properties, but recently has had a hard time getting businesses to fill the space. As his leasing agent explains, "We have had literally hundreds of offers, most from reputable, well-financed concerns willing to lease on a long-term basis…. At some point along the line, with all of these concerns, the knowledge that Columbia University can or will invoke eminent domain has caused them to seek out alternative space arrangements." Even when the university isn't taking direct action, its very presence drives away businesses.

Each of Sprayregen's buildings is kept in pristine condition. But Columbia wants his land. So the university has been working with the state of New York to have the neighborhood declared "blighted." If that designation is made, the government will be able to take Sprayregen's well-kept property and hand it over to the university, which owns the run-down buildings. And only then, when they have their neighborh's land, does Columbia promise to clean up its act and make Manhattanville nice again.

Back in September, Sprayregen wrote a very good op-ed for The Wall Street Journal describing some of the university's more despicable tactics:

Under New York state law, in order to condemn property the state first has to undertake a "neighborhood conditions study" and declare the area in question "blighted." Earlier this summer the state released its study, which concluded that Manhattanville is indeed "blighted." This gives the state the legal green light to condemn my four buildings and hand them over to the university.

The study's conclusion was unsurprising. Since the commencement of acquisitions in Manhattanville by Columbia, the school has made a solid effort to create the appearance of "blight." Once active buildings became vacant as Columbia either refused to renew leases, pressured small businesses to vacate, or made unreasonable demands that resulted in the businesses moving elsewhere. Columbia also let their holdings decay and left code violations unaddressed.


There is also a conflict of interest in the condemnation process. The firm the state hired to perform the "impartial" blight study–the planning, engineering and environmental consultant Allee King Rosen & Fleming, Inc. (AKRF)–had been retained by Columbia two years earlier to advocate for governmental approval of the university's expansion, including the possible use of eminent domain.

As Last notes in the Standard, Sprayregen faces the challenge of distinguishing Columbia's development plan from the "comprehensive" one that the Supreme Court endorsed in its notorious Kelo decision, which he may succeed in doing since "Columbia's redevelopment plan is, by their own admission, not comprehensive because 'it is impossible to know today all the new areas of learning and discovery that might arise decades into the future' when the redevelopment is completed."

Read Last's article here.

For more on eminent domain abuse, private property, and the courts, don't miss Tim Cavanaugh's interview with Kelo attorney Scott Bullock, Matt Welch on why The New York Times loves eminent domain, Ilya Somin on the limits of anti-Kelo legislation, and Daniel McGraw on eminent domain, publicly funded stadiums, and sports welfare.