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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It's not clear exactly when Columbia first set its eye on Manhattanville. The university publicly announced its plan in 2002 and hired architect Renzo Piano in 2003 to conceptualize the new campus. (Sprayregen contends that Columbia began quietly buying Manhattanville property in 2000.) The neighborhood has certainly been on the institution's radar for a long while. In 1968, the New York Times reported on Columbia's $150 million plan to redevelop Manhattanville from 125th to 135th Street. The plan never came to fruition, but the university was never particularly forthcoming about its redevelopment effort. As the Times reported, "Courtney C. Brown, dean of the Columbia School of Business, reluctantly disclosed the project in outline last night after The New Republic magazine had made public an article in its May 18 issue on Columbia's real-estate ventures." (The incident became infamous for the neighborhood's opposition to the building of a Columbia gym.)

The latest scheme is much more ambitious than the aborted 1968 plan, and just as secretive. The new plan seeks to take 17 acres in Manhattanville (from just below 129th to 134th, and between Broadway and Riverside Drive, which is elevated at that point) and dig down seven stories into the ground. Columbia wants to create a contiguous 2 million square foot sub-basement connecting all eight blocks of the new Manhattanville campus. The idea, as the university explains in the project FAQ, is to place parking, loading docks, and utilities for the entire enterprise underground, allowing "the majority of deliveries, mail, maintenance vehicles, equipment service trucks, and sanitation to be handled underground--as it is, for example, at Rockefeller Center."

Above ground, Columbia plans to build a series of glittering glass high-rises, as well as 94,000 square feet of open space in the form of parks and a square. In total, the university hopes to create 6.8 million square feet of usable indoor space for itself. It plans to move its business school and school for the arts to Manhattanville and to make the Jerome L. Greene Science Center the centerpiece of the new campus. This whole ambitious project is budgeted at nearly $7 billion and is not scheduled to be completed until 2030. The university has left blanks in the Manhattanville campus plan because it "is based on the understanding that it is impossible to know today all the new areas of learning and discovery that might arise decades into the future."

Columbia owns 70 percent of the land they seek to use in Manhattanville. Public agencies control 26 percent. And 4 percent of it is owned by two private parties--the Singh family, which owns two small gas stations, and Sprayregen. Initially, there were seven commercial property owners who banded together to oppose Columbia, but one by one, they were bought out. Now only Sprayregen and the Singhs remain.

Sprayregen's father, Gerald, founded Tuck-It-Away Storage in 1980. Nick graduated from NYU's business school in 1986 and took the reins in 1990. The business has grown considerably over the years; Sprayregen now owns 14 storage properties in New York and New Jersey totaling 1 million square feet of space. His business serves 7,000 customers. In the summer of 2004, representatives from Columbia took Sprayregen to lunch. "They were very nice to me and asked if my property was for sale," Sprayregen says. "I said no, and they called every week for the next few months to ask if I was sure and whether or not I had changed my mind."

At the time, Columbia had already begun coordinating with the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the state office that rides herd over redevelopment projects and wields the power of eminent domain. Columbia had also hired a development consulting firm, Alee King Ross & Fleming (AKRF), to help it clear the hurdles to approval of its Manhattanville plan. AKRF was to help produce things like the Environmental Impact Statement and the City Map Override Proposal--which would help Columbia acquire the land underneath city streets to be used as part of the university's 17-acre subterranean bathtub.

Columbia also needed the city to rezone Manhattanville. The area was zoned for light industrial use, which is why the neighborhood consisted largely of auto shops and storage houses. Columbia would need the city to mark Manhattanville for mixed use in order to build its proposed campus. And finally, just in case some of the property owners in Manhattanville were not inclined to sell out to Columbia, the university had to make sure the state would be willing and able to invoke eminent domain on the school's behalf.