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Razing West Harlem

Why Columbia's proposed expansion has met resistance.

12:00 AM, Aug 9, 2007 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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West Harlem
TUCK-IT-AWAY SELF-STORAGE dominates the block between 131st Street and 132nd Street on the west side of Broadway, a stretch of the famous thoroughfare where the New York City subway actually runs above ground. This is West Harlem, in a largely black and Hispanic neighborhood known as Manhattanville. Hanging from the side of Tuck-It-Away's massive brick edifice is a banner reading, in both English and Spanish, "Stop Columbia! We Won't Be Pushed Out!" The Ivy League university has proposed expanding its uptown campus into a 17-acre section of Manhattanville, thus endangering many local residents and businesses, including four buildings owned and operated by the storage company.

"We're the largest property owner in the area," says Tuck-It-Away president Nicholas Sprayregen, a wealthy real estate investor. "For three years we've been fighting this." For most of that time, Columbia threatened to pursue eminent domain action if necessary. Then, after many people had already settled, the university changed course--sort of. Last month, Columbia announced it would not seek an eminent domain ruling to evict those residential tenants still living in the expansion zone. But it held out the possibility of targeting the remaining commercial properties with eminent domain. (Of course, Columbia still hopes to relocate the residential tenants, just not via eminent domain.)

The announcement was "not a concession at all," Sprayregen complains. "Just a blatant attempt to divide the community." He and other local business owners might find their land condemned under New York State's very liberal "blight" laws. Indeed, New York offers some of the weakest safeguards in America against Fifth Amendment property takings designed for private development. More than two years after the Supreme Court's Kelo decision spurred a frenzy of reforms around the country, Albany has barely lifted a finger.

In a way, the university's disavowal of using eminent domain against residential tenants was anti-climactic. This past February, Columbia president Lee Bollinger made a clear distinction between residential and commercial properties in the expansion sector. "I will not take eminent domain off the table because it would be irresponsible of me to do this," Bollinger told students at one of his "fireside chat" meetings. "Private property is a potential interference to public purposes." Therefore, he said, "I'm going to reserve the right of eminent domain against those people who have a strictly commercial interest," adding that, "It's the people that live there that I care about."

Bollinger apparently cares far less about the local business owners, whose "strictly commercial" interests make their property (in his view) fair game. Sprayregen insists he's not opposed to the idea of Columbia's expansion, but questions whether the university really needs all 17 acres in Manhattanville. He also decries the threat of condemnation, as has the local community board. In September 2004, Community Board No. 9 Manhattan voted unanimously, 29 to 0, to declare "its opposition to the use of condemnation through 'blight' studies or any other method, as a vehicle toward eminent domain."

Most of the proposed expansion area covers a swath of land from West 125th Street to West 134th Street between Broadway and 12th Avenue. Yet as Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer has noted, the "ripple effects" of the plan may reach beyond its immediate footprint. "The tenants in Hamilton Heights' historic tenements, for example, live outside the immediate Columbia expansion zone--but have legitimate reason to worry that their homes will be replaced by glass towers in a newly 'hot' college neighborhood," Stringer writes. "Similarly, Broadway's thriving commercial corridor north of 135th Street is also outside the expansion zone--but local storeowners fear that they will be pushed out to make way for retail catering to students and visitors."

The university defends its $7 billion plan robustly. "Columbia projects that the expansion in Manhattanville will create 6,000 new University jobs, as well as an average of 1,200 construction jobs per year for nearly a quarter century," a recent press release stated. "The University has a strong record of employing community residents with a wide range of skills and experience in the workforce, as well as the engagement of minority-, women- and locally owned contractors--many of which are already playing key roles on Columbia's architecture and construction management teams."

What about local opinion in West Harlem? "Columbia foresees a Manhattanville graced with grand educational institutions and infused with money and energy after many lackluster years," the New York Times reported last month. "Some people, among them merchants who expect a boom in business, are eager for the change. But others in Manhattanville are unsure, and still others are strongly opposed, saying that the university is charging into Manhattanville just as the neighborhood begins to perk up, that they will be priced out of the revamped area and that other initiatives, like building affordable housing, are much more compelling."

The neighborhood has historically been zoned for manufacturing, which has typically stymied hopes for new commercial and residential development. Columbia needs to change this. It cleared the first hurdle in June, when the New York City Department of City Planning officially certified its rezoning application. According to Bollinger, the public review process "will probably last until the end of this calendar year."

Conditions in Manhattanville have improved demonstrably since the crack cocaine epidemic. "With crime much lower than it has been, outsiders now feel safe enough to move in," according to the New York Times. "I've been here since 1980," Sprayregen says. "The neighborhood has never been better." But will the holdout properties still be condemned?


That depends on the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), New York's official economic development agency, which wields eminent domain authority. Last year, the ESDC initiated a study to determine whether Columbia's expansion zone qualified as "blighted" (i.e., eligible for condemnation). It hired the consulting firm Allee King Rosen & Fleming Inc. (AKRF)--who, as it happened, was already working for the university.

"You have one consultant serving two masters," Sprayregen grouses. "We've had to sue the state a number of times because of their refusal to hand over certain documents." In late June, New York State Supreme Court Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich ordered the ESDC to release more than 100 documents, including legal bills and emails, because AKRF's position lacked "sufficient neutrality" to justify keeping them confidential. "AKRF, presumably, seeks to succeed in securing an outcome that its client, Columbia, would favor," Justice Kornreich explained.

AKRF has yet to issue its "blight" study. But some prominent African-American leaders have endorsed the expansion. In a May 27th New York Times op-ed, former mayor David Dinkins compared it to his own failed plans to revitalize West Harlem. "Columbia's Manhattanville proposal takes the best of these ideas to gradually create a new kind of open, urban campus that will improve local streets; bring back commercial life to Broadway, 125th Street and 12th Avenue; and better connect the residential areas of Harlem with the waterfront park now under construction along the Hudson River," Dinkins wrote. "This kind of long-term institutional growth will provide more jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, as well as cultural and open space, to the diverse group of people who live in the area."

Columbia remains bullish on these benefits, at times dipping into moralistic self-congratulation. As a recent press release gushed, the proposed expansion would "allow the University to construct the kind of academic research buildings with the floor space needed for the type of research and study that confronts some of the most critical health issues facing the community and world such as strokes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease."

Although Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, believes the West Harlem expansion "is basically good for New York," she criticizes the eminent domain threat, and also raps Columbia for its all-or-nothing approach and unwillingness to compromise on the redevelopment zone boundaries.

The university's project may, as Dinkins promised, "broaden its mission of teaching and academic research, patient care and public service, and enhance the quality of life for those who live and work in Harlem and across our city." But should Bollinger make good on his eminent domain warning, it might require a government-mandated private-to-private land transfer--the sort of thing Americans of all political stripes have been howling about since Kelo.

For that matter, should Columbia attempt to acquire Tuck-It-Away's property via public condemnation, it may well trigger a legal challenge. "I have vowed to fight them all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court," Sprayregen pledges. Stay tuned.

Duncan Currie is a reporter at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.