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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."