This story is part of our Orientation 2012 special issue. Check out our complete guide to life at Columbia here.
Columbia has a serious space crunch. That’s why, in 2003, University President Lee Bollinger invested in building a 17-acre campus along Broadway from 125th to 133rd streets in Manhattanville, a former manufacturing neighborhood. But the decades-long expansion plan faced much local opposition before it got off the ground.
After announcing the expansion in 2003, Columbia negotiated the purchase of every lot on the site, except for two holdouts. In December 2008, the Empire State Development Corporation—a quasi-government agency—approved the use of eminent domain to seize the private properties and transfer them to Columbia’s ownership.
To justify this, the ESDC conducted a study of blight, determining that due to its poor or critical building conditions, high rates of vacancy, and underdevelopment, the neighborhood could be improved by a large development project such as Columbia’s campus expansion.
The two holdouts, Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage owner Nick Sprayregen, and gas station owners Gurnam Singh and Parminder Kaur, filed lawsuits against the ESDC. In the first ruling by the New York State Supreme Court, the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville was declared illegal, but the decision was reversed in 2010, effectively ending the legal dispute in the courts.
Outside the courts, organizations like the Coalition to Preserve Community have held sporadic protests and meetings for years, arguing that Columbia’s expansion has displaced and harmed residents who once lived in the neighborhood. Protests against eminent domain continued into last semester, when local protest groups staged an occupation in front of one of Sprayregen’s warehouses.
The businesses owned by Sprayregen, Singh, and Kaur have yet to be demolished to make way for the expansion. When they are, it will mark the definitive end of the legal battle, though many Manhattanville residents remain uneasy about the neighborhood’s future.
For editorial comment, see “The devotion of John B. Pine” by Samuel E. Roth from Dec. 10, 2009.