5/20/2006

Columbia’s Domain: New York (NY) Sun, 5/3/06

Editorial

While [New York] Mayor Bloomberg, speaking from Father Duffy Square, was offering another discourse on the importance of eminent domain as a tool in private development, a not so little eminent domain drama was unfolding uptown, where Columbia University is seeking to expand into West Harlem and is being resisted by a business owner, Nicholas Sprayregen.

He recently sent each of the university’s trustees another letter asking them to respect his property rights. The latest word was that the letters were received Monday, but as of yet there has been no response. If Mr. Sprayregen’s past experience is any guide — he’s been down this road three times already — the
silence will grow only more deafening. Columbia wants a site roughly between Broadway and 12th Avenue from 125th Street to 133rd Street, and it expresses willingness to seek the aid of the state.

Mr. Sprayregen fears that they will get it. Columbia has assembled deeds to about 70% of the properties in the proposed footprint for its new West Harlem campus, which it calls Manhattanville. Of the remaining 30% of the properties, Mr. Sprayregen owns the largest chunk of any private property owner. Most of it is devoted to his family’s self-storage business. Mr. Sprayregen professes no interest in selling out, hoping instead to pass the business on to his children. He worries that relocation is not a feasible option since the success of his self-storage operation depends on physical proximity to his customers. He worries about the impact of closing the business on those customers, not to mention his 25 to 30 employees and his commercial tenants, which include a supermarket and a hair salon.

The university makes some compelling arguments. Columbia is certainly an important institution for the city. It has been here since New York was a colony. Its proposed expansion at Manhattanville would, it says, bring thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to the city’s economy, while giving a new face to a neighborhood that hasn’t always been in the best shape. Administrators claim that assembling a contiguous campus is key to its educational mission by enabling better cooperation between scholars in different departments that might otherwise be scattered around the city.

Ordinarily, the market would sort all this out, but New York’s eminent domain laws make this a far from ordinary situation. Because the university reserves the right to ask the state to seize Mr.Sprayregen’s land in the name of “economic development,” the situation has become anything but a normal business negotiation. The deck is stacked in favor of Columbia getting all and Mr. Sprayregen getting scant compensation. Even if Columbia doesn’t need to get the state to invoke eminent domain in the end — and that process is invariably more expensive and time-consuming than a private purchase — the threat encourages landowners like Mr. Sprayregen to sell out sooner than they ordinarily would.

Not only is this bad for property owners, but it can be bad for the surrounding
communities. Such,at least,has been the observation of none other than a professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia,Mindy Fullilove. In a recent book, “Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It,” Dr. Fullilove describes her experiences touring cities that were transformed by urban renewal projects. When we spoke to her this week, she faulted Columbia for not understanding the damaging effects a project of this sort can have on the surrounding community. She suggests that Columbia has not been effective enough at communicating with the neighbors. With the possibility of eminent domain in the cards,we’d posit, it doesn’t need to.

As it stands, almost two years ago, the deputy general counsel of Columbia, Howard Jacobson, executed a letter with the Empire State Development Corporation in which the school and the ESDC agreed to consider condemning some of the properties on the site. The university now claims that it is not proceeding with efforts to get the state to invoke eminent domain, but even if it is not — Mr. Sprayregen points to the 2004 letter as evidence that it is — the school refuses to close the door on the possibility. No doubt all of this is being watched in Washington, where the Senate is in a knot over a bill that passed the House overwhelmingly and would put a stop to eminent domain abuse. This is a time for advocates of the use of eminent domain to use that power very gingerly.


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