When Columbia University proposed a new $6 billion, 17-acre campus in the Manhattanville section of West Harlem in 2004, the institution considered using eminent domain to acquire land it could not buy. Most owners sold—the university had quietly bought up half the neighborhood starting in 2002, and more followed suit after the announcement—but two local businesses, Tuck-It-Away Self Storage and a pair of gas stations, did not. Instead, they sued the state last year over its use of eminent domain, and today a state court handed down a surprising decision in their favor.
In a stern 3–2 ruling, the First Department of New York’s apellate court determined that the project lacked any true public purpose, with the state exercising eminent domain wholly to the benefit of a private entity, Columbia University. Furthermore, the decision admonishes the state on two counts related to its finding of blight in Manhattanville, which became the pretext for condemning the area. First the blight study was done belatedly—two years after the state had gotten involved on the project—and the study was prepared by the same firm, AKRF, employed by Columbia, creating a blatant conflict of interest.
“This ultimately became the defining moment for the end game of blight,” Judge James Catterson wrote in his majority opinion. “Having committed to allow Columbia to annex Manhattanville, the EDC and ESDC were compelled to engineer a public purpose for a quintessentially private development: eradication of blight.” Catterson is referring to the city’s Economic Development Corportation and the Empire State Development Corporation, and his writing may have wider impacts on both: “The time has come to categorically reject eminent domain takings solely based on underutilization.”
The move is all the more surprising because this same panel of judges found in favor of the state’s use of eminent domain at Atlantic Yards, a ruling that was affirmed last week and touted by the state in its promise to appeal this decision: “ESDC believes the decision of the Appellate Division, First Department in the matter of the Columbia University Manhattanville Campus to be wrong and inconsistent with established law, as consistently articulated by the New York State Court of Appeals, most recently with respect to ESDC's Atlantic Yards project.”
How Columbia will proceed remains to be seen. Should an appeal fail, the school would have to negotiate with the two holdouts. This could mean a buyout, though both parties have expressed their interest to remain in the neighborhood, suggesting Columbia build around them."It's a good and valuable business and they'd like to keep doing it," said David Smith, attorney for the gas station owners.
The school has called such a scenario impossible, because its new campus, designed by Renzo Piano with planning by SOM, entails a below-grade service core stretching across much of the site. The school argues that this would eliminate truck traffic in the neighborhood, providing for a better pedestrian experience, which could not be achieved without controlling all of the land, of which it currently has 91 percent. A Columbia spokesperson declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
Nick Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-It-Away, called the decision a victory not only for him but for all New Yorkers who fear for their property rights. “Although I’ve always been cautiously optimistic, I knew the weight of prior eminent domain rulings had been against us,” he said. “It’s nice to see the courts, when given actual proof of collusion, will rule in the right way and support the people.”