As the controversy over Columbia’s proposed expansion plays out in the court system, some critics are arguing that the legal system that gave the University a green light is deeply flawed.
Attorneys and neighborhood activists gathered on Saturday at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for a conference called “Columbia University’s ‘Land Grab’ and its Impact on Harlem and Beyond: A Case of Power, Greed, and Corruption.” While most discussions up to this point have honed in on the legal aspects of this court case, the panelists also debated the scientific, political, and socioeconomic issues associated with the University’s intended 17-acre campus expansion in Manhattanville.
This weekend’s discussion came on the heels of a significant court case in which the New York State Court of Appeals declared this summer that eminent domain—the process by which the state can seize private property for “public use” in exchange for market-rate compensation—can be used to obtain private properties in West Harlem. This ruling was a major victory for Columbia, as it effectively paved the way for the University to acquire the remaining private property in the neighborhood.
Now, the attorneys representing two property holdouts, who have refused to sell to Columbia, are appealing the decision to the Supreme Court of the United States, arguing that the decision promotes an abuse of eminent domain law and violates fundamental constitutional rights.
One of the two attorneys—Norman Siegel, representing Tuck-it-Away Self Storage owner and property hold out Nick Sprayregen—spoke at the conference, explaining this same argument to an audience of about 40 people in a discussion called “New Challenge of Eminent Domain in the U.S. Supreme Court.” But he went beyond the basics, offering several recommendations to fix what he calls the broken system of New York state eminent domain procedure law.
Siegel expressed concern with the current legal definition of “blight”—the condition of disrepair beyond the potential for natural relief. Though designation of an area as blighted is necessary to invoke eminent domain, Siegel said that vagueness in the language of the definition favors developers as it stands.
“Vagueness invites subjectivity, subjectivity invites selective enforcement, and selective enforcement invites favoritism,” he said. “The state legislature needs to hold public hearings soliciting public comments so that it can draft better laws clearly spelling out what constitutes blight in the context of the use of eminent domain.”
Siegel also proposed reforming the process to challenge eminent domain. He noted that in New York state, unlike in every other state in the country, there is no trial court in eminent domain cases allowing a private property owner to cross-examine the developer. Rather, the case automatically begins in an appellate court.
In addition to being revised to provide trial court cases, Siegel also proposed that New York’s eminent domain law be changed to prohibit a government agency responsible for approving the use of eminent domain from hiring the same consulting firm to conduct a blight study that the developer of the project has also hired.
“There’s something terribly wrong with that system, and yet that’s what happened in the Columbia situation,” he said, referring to the collusion that he argues occurred between the University and the firm that carried out the blight study.
Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions at the Institute for Justice, echoed Siegel’s point, explaining that vaguely defined terms favor developers and disproportionately impact low-income black residents.
“We see bogus blight happening across the state using vague criteria, even when the developer himself causes the blight, even when the city causes the blight,” Walsh said, adding that in a study conducted of 1,000 eminent domain projects, two-thirds of the people displaced were black.
But developers, city government agencies, and consulting firms are not the only ones to blame, according to Tom DeMott, CC ’80 and a member of the local activist group Coalition to Preserve Community. In his talk, “The People’s Struggle against Columbia University’s Expansion,” he discussed another set of stakeholders who he says have been at fault throughout this court battle: politicians.
“When you get a ruling like that [the Court of Appeals decision] and when there’s been opposition for eight years, you would think the elected officials might get off their asses and do something about it,” DeMott said.
Local elected officials’ compliance with the University’s plans, he said, have allowed local residents to “be victims of eminent domain.”
Audience members said the panels taught them a lot about the expansion.
“I’m very perturbed right now,” West Harlem resident William Greene, who lives near the footprint of the expansion, said in an interview. “I learned today that we need a lot more public outcry. People haven’t been heard.”