The Magazine

Columbia University, Slumlord

A case study in abusing eminent domain law.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Manhattanville, New York

Nick Sprayregen stands on the corner of 130th and Broadway pointing out the disarray. What was once a neighborhood gas station is now abandoned, its yard closed off by a chain-link fence topped with a spiral of razor wire. Inside the fence, debris is casually strewn about. Outside, the sidewalk is littered with broken glass. A derelict shopping cart is propped against the building, which itself is marked with stray graffiti. An electrical box on the side of the building has been pried open. Some of the wiring has been ripped out; what remains is exposed to the elements. This rundown property is owned by Columbia University. In fact, the Ivy League school owns 70 percent of the surrounding area--known as Manhattanville--much of which is in similarly dilapidated condition.

It wasn't always this way. Manhattanville was never trendy, but it was once an active neighborhood full of light industry--auto shops, warehouses, and the like. But as Columbia began buying up the neighborhood, businesses left. Eighteen buildings in Manhattanville are now at least 50 percent vacant; Columbia owns 17 of them and they were nearly all fully occupied before Columbia acquired them. As a study put together by Sprayregen's lawyer explains, "Each became vacant only after, or immediately prior to Columbia's acquisition or assumption of control." And the university's actions seem designed to keep them vacant.

The building at 3251 Broadway, for example, was home to six auto repair businesses, an auto parts store, a woodwork restoration business, and a travel agency before Columbia acquired it. In 2005, Columbia refused to renew leases on the upper floors, citing a dangerous elevator. The university then erected sidewalk sheds in front of the building, hiding the ground-floor storefronts, claiming that there was a problem with the building's façade. But they have never initiated any repairs. The businesses emptied out of 3251 Broadway, and today the building stands vacant except for a small auto parts store on the ground floor. The unsightly sidewalk sheds still hulk over the front doors. Many of the buildings Columbia owns in Manhattanville have "For Rent" signs. Yet as Sprayregen's lawyer notes, "Calls to numbers listed on signs on Columbia-owned buildings advertising space for rent could never reach a live person and messages were never returned."

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 neighbor's land, does Columbia promise to clean up its act and make Manhattanville nice again.

It's a curious situation--the government punishing a landowner who takes care of his property and rewarding an owner who does not. But this is the through-the-looking-glass world of New York eminent domain law.

Columbia University's main campus sits in Morningside Heights, just south of Manhattanville--running from 114th to 120th Streets, bounded to the west by Broadway and the east by Amsterdam Avenue. Columbia built here in the 1890s, and over the decades the university has prospered. Today it has 14,000 people on its faculty and staff, 24,400 full- and part-time students, and an annual payroll of $1.25 billion. The school believes that in order to sustain its financial health, it needs more physical space. Columbia decided that the Manhattanville neighborhood a few blocks north was a good place for expansion.