There Goes the Neighborhood

Exposing Columbia University's eminent domain abuse


For the last five years, Nick Sprayregen has battled the combined forces of Columbia University and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), a quasi-public entity empowered by the state of New York to seize private property via eminent domain. The conflict centers on Columbia's desire to control the West Harlem neighborhood of Manhattanville, where four of Sprayregen's successful Tuck-It-Away storage businesses currently operate, and where the university wants free reign to build a massive new research campus.

The ESDC laid the groundwork for that free reign last July by declaring Manhattanville to be "blighted," which is the state of economic disrepair required to trigger an eminent domain seizure under state law. In December, Columbia's multi-billion dollar project got the green light. But late last month, Sprayregen launched an offensive of his own, filing a 107-page petition with the appellate division of the New York Supreme Court "to reject, annul and set aside" the ESDC's determination and finding of blight.

It's a startling document, one that provides convincing and damning evidence of widespread collusion between the ESDC and Columbia University to violate both the letter and spirit of the law, as well as to create the very conditions that ESDC officials then used to justify their intervention on Columbia's behalf. As the petition notes, "This case is about the secret collaboration between ESDC and New York City agencies in a complex plan to give that developer, an elite private university, everything it wanted, without compromise or limitation, while evading public review and accountability."

Consider the following: In 2006, the ESDC hired the planning and engineering firm Allee King Rosen & Fleming, Inc. (AKRF) to perform an "impartial" neighborhood blight study. AKRF was certainly a bold choice, given that the firm was already on Columbia's payroll and actively working on the contested Manhattanville plan. According to billing records that Sprayregen's attorney, civil libertarian Norman Siegel, turned up via the state's Freedom of Information Law, as many as six AKRF employees worked on both the blight study and the redevelopment project, which is practically the definition of a conflict of interests.

The report itself proved to be just as flawed. For starters, AKRF failed to mention that Columbia owns 76 percent of the neighborhood and was thus directly responsible for the overwhelming majority of blight that the report alleged, ranging from overflowing basement trash heaps to major roof and skylight leaks. (Columbia has been performing maintenance on several buildings it plans to preserve for their historical significance.) As numerous tenants have now reported, the university refused to perform basic and necessary repairs, which both pushed tenants out and manufactured the ugly conditions that later advanced Columbia's long-term interests. As Sprayregen wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, "Only a few years ago, this area was undergoing a resurgence. Virtually all property was occupied, many by long-standing family operations such as my own. Now most of those businesses are gone—forced out by the university."

AKRF admitted as much in preliminary findings delivered to the ESDC, which identified "Open violations in CU Buildings" and "History of CU repairs to properties" among its "issues of concern." On top of that, AKRF relied on misleading and in some cases inappropriate evidence, including irrelevant crime statistics and building code violations that had zero relationship to actual physical conditions (such as the failure to file an annual boiler inspection).

In fact, the ESDC-Columbia redevelopment scheme fails to meet even the generous standards set by the Supreme Court's notoriously eminent domain-friendly decision in Kelo v. City of New London (2005), which permitted the transfer of property from one private party to another so long as the taking was part of a "comprehensive redevelopment plan." But as Justice Anthony Kennedy's concurring opinion in the case also made perfectly clear, "transfers intended to confer benefits on particular, favored private entities, and with only incidental or pretextual public benefits, are forbidden by the Public Use Clause." As Sprayregen's petition demonstrates, that is exactly what is happening between the ESDC and Columbia University.

Perhaps the worst part of the whole affair is that Columbia no longer even needs eminent domain to get its way. The threat alone did the trick. Beginning in roughly 2002, the university started dropping none-too-subtle hints to property holders that they hurry up and sell their land before the state condemned it. Between the 76 percent Columbia now owns and the 15 percent that New York City effectively controls (including property held by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority), the university holds sway over 91 percent of Manhattanville. Surely that's enough land to build a swanky new campus? As for Sprayregen's four holdout properties, all but one of them sits on the periphery of Columbia's proposal. To date, the university has made no offer to buy any of them.

So what happens next? As Sprayregen told me via email, "Although we are hopeful that the NY courts will stop this use of eminent domain, if need be we are more than prepared to take this case to the U.S. Supreme Court."

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at Reason magazine.