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Columbia Spectator Staff

The New York State Court of Appeals ruled today that eminent domain can be used to obtain private properties in the area, a major victory for Columbia University as it prepares for its proposed 17-acre campus expansion. The decision clears the way for the $6.3 billion project to proceed, barring a reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court—although the property holdouts, Tuck-it-Away Self Storage owner Nick Sprayregen and gas station owners Gurnam Singh and Parminder Kaur, say they will ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. The 17-acre expansion zone extends from 125th Street to 133rd Street and from Broadway to the Hudson River. It will include new classroom buildings and research facilities, and Columbia says it will create thousands of jobs—a point University President Lee Bollinger emphasized after the ruling, saying, "An institution like Columbia, committed to research and teaching, in addition to public service, has enormous value to the surrounding city." ESDC spokesperson Warner Johnston said in an emailed statement that ESDC "is very pleased with the Court of Appeals' unanimous ruling in favor of the Columbia Manhattanville project. This confirms that the project complies with New York State law in all respects and that the acquisition of the holdout properties is essential to realizing the vision for the Manhattanville campus as it was approved by the State." He declined to comment on any potential appeal, saying simply, "Today's ruling speaks for itself." The ruling In an opinion written by Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, the Court of Appeals overturned a December 2009 ruling by the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, that had dealt a major blow to the expansion. In that ruling, Justice James Catterson had stated that the Empire State Development Corporation's designation of Manhattanville as blighted—a condition of economic disrepair beyond the potential for natural relief—was made "in bad faith," and that the expansion of an "elite" private university did not constitute a public use, as required by eminent domain law. Ciparick dismissed those arguments. The expansion of a private university can serve the public good, Ciparick wrote, because "the indisputably public purpose of education is particularly vital for New York City and the State to maintain their respective statuses as global centers of higher education and academic research." The ruling continues, "The purpose of the Project is unquestionably to promote education and academic research while providing public benefits to the local community. Indeed, the advancement of higher education is the quintessential example of a 'civic purpose.'" The Manhattanville holdouts—Tuck-it-Away Self-Storage owner Nick Sprayregen and gas station owners Singh and Kaur—had also argued that ESDC's decision to hire consulting firm Allee King Rosen and Fleming to conduct the blight study constituted "collusion," since AKRF was also a consultant for Columbia. That was one of the primary bases on which the Appellate Division had condemned eminent domain, but the Court of Appeals defended ESDC, noting that it had hired a second, independent consultant, Earth Tech, to replicate the study, and Earth Tech also found the area blighted. "Contrary to petitioners' assertions, Earth Tech did not merely review and rubber stamp AKRF's study, but conducted its own independent research and gathered separate data and photographs of the area before arriving at its own conclusions," Ciparick wrote. "Further, unlike AKRF, Earth Tech had never previously been affiliated with or employed by Columbia. Simply put, petitioners' argument that ESDC acted in 'bad faith' or pretextually is unsubstantiated by the record." University President Lee Bollinger greeted the announcement with excitement, casting it as the end of a long road of legal battles. "Many steps along the way have made one feel expansion is actually possible. This one, because we think it's the last, is very special," Bollinger said. "There's an emotional feeling, a kind of conclusion to this stage of preparation for the historic opportunity for the University to grow over the next four to five decades." Disappointment for eminent domain opponents Reached Thursday afternoon, Sprayregen said he believed the result was "pre-determined" by the justices, who "basically accepted everything at face value the state said. ... We believe that this decision, especially coming as a unanimous decision, is a disaster for private property rights in New York State. The decision sends a chill to every lower court below them to stop eminent domain abuse, because the Court of Appeals will automatically reverse them." His attorney, former New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel, said, "We're extremely disappointed. We respectfully disagree with the Court of Appeals' decision, its reasoning, analysis, and conclusion. The decision sets a terrible precedent regarding the use of eminent domain in New York State. ... It opens the door to even greater abuse of eminent domain in New York State. It's the first time the court has held that a private educational institution can constitute a civic project." David Smith, the attorney for Singh and Kaur, echoed Siegel: "We are very, very disappointed," he said. "My clients right now are very upset because their two gas stations are their livelihood. ... This is having their property and their livelihood taken away from them without a hearing. It's completely and totally upsetting." He added of the court's reasoning that Columbia's expansion constitutes a public educational purpose, "I think it's an incredibly dangerous precedent to let a private entity to expand on this basis because of the word 'educational' in there. It also said 'recreational'—does that mean a local country club can go take people's homes and businesses?" Kaur added, "It is unfair. The millionaires got everything, not the hardworking people. I was very upset—everybody knows that the Columbia project is not good for the public." Siegel said he has already begun preparing paperwork to submit to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide whether to hear the case. Smith was more cautious, saying, "There's a possibility of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but we haven't sat down to consider that. ... Right now the shock and the pain for my clients is too real." He added that he expected to decide whether to appeal within the next week. Kaur said that she and her husband would be on board for an appeal. "I can't speak to that," Bollinger said when asked about a possible Supreme Court appeal. "All I can say is from our standpoint, this is an enormous victory." Kevin Wardally—an adviser to U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, who has represented northern Manhattan in Congress since 1971—echoed Bollinger, saying the project "will create jobs and bring vitality to a part of Upper Manhattan that needs it. It will be a good project for 50 years to come—it's this kind of development that is needed in times when jobs are so needed in this community." But opponents of eminent domain reacted with anger, calling the Court of Appeals' legal reasoning flawed. Ben Totushek, GS and a member of Columbia's Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, said after reading Ciparick's opinion, "There were a lot of overtly biased assumptions." Totushek argued that the Court of Appeals did not respond to a main criticism of the blight study—that Earth Tech adopted the methodology of AKRF wholesale. He added further, "It's a straw man that allows them to write off the whole argument based on there being no professional relationship between Earth Tech and Columbia." To Tom DeMott, CC '80 and a member of the local activist group Coalition to Preserve Community, the decision is damaging to the neighborhood. "I think it's a ruling that reflects the power of elitist institutions, and it's one that will facilitate the eviction and the elimination of a great West Harlem community." What's next There is no guarantee that the Supreme Court will agree to hear the case. Its precedent has generally been in favor of an expansive interpretation of permissible eminent domain use—most recently, the court held in the 2005 Kelo v. New London decision that the transfer of property from one private owner to another could constitute a public use if it was for a revitalization project, even if the property was in good condition and being productively used. But according to Pat Jones, chair of Community Board 9, which represents Morningside Heights and West Harlem, the ruling is not necessarily the end of the road for Sprayregen, Singh, and Kaur. Regardless of the outcome at the Supreme Court level, Jones said, "The role that the community board can play is ensuring that any commitments that Columbia has made to the community, it does keep—and probably does more—and that their conduct, whether it's demolition, construction, or anything else, is held to the highest standard, and that the community is well-informed and not negatively impacted." DeMott said he and other eminent domain opponents would continue to fight as the case winds its way to Washington. "I would say I'm a realist, and a decision like this—it definitely dampens the potential resistance to a degree," he said. "But we're not going anywhere. We live here, and we'll continue our resistance." Sarah Darville contributed reporting. news@columbiaspectator.com

Nick Sprayregen Manhattanville ESDC
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