State Court Annuls Eminent Domain Decision

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Just when almost everyone thought that Manhattanville had state approval wrapped up, the project has suddenly hit a major speed bump. Earlier this afternoon, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court ruled that the state could not use eminent domain to obtain parts of West Harlem for Columbia’s expansion.

The 3-to-2 decision found that “the record makes plain that rather than the identity of the ultimate private beneficiary being unknown at the time that the redevelopment scheme was initially contemplated, the ultimate private beneficiary of the scheme for the private annexation of Manhattanville was the progenitor of its own benefit…The record overwhelmingly establishes that the true beneficiary of the scheme to redevelop Manhattanville is not the community that is supposedly blighted, but rather Columbia University, a private elite education institution,” thus violating the Kelo precedent.

Columbia spokesman Robert Hornsby declined comment to Bwog, while plaintiff Nick Sprayregen told Spec, “The majority of the court obviously saw what we saw, that the whole finding of blight was preposterous and engineered specifically to give all the private property over to Columbia.” Still, the decision is not the end of the line: Empire State Development Corporation spokesman Warner Johnston told City Room the decision was “wrong and inconsistent with established law,” adding that “E.S.D.C. intends to appeal this decision” (the ESDC, not Columbia, was the only major defendant in the case). Next stop: the Court of Appeals, which has recently been favorable to eminent domain cases. Old updates after the jump.

Update, 3:31 PM: City Room says: “Warner Johnston, a spokesman for the Empire State Development Corporation, criticized the court decision as ‘wrong and inconsistent with established law.’ He added, ‘E.S.D.C. intends to appeal this decision.'” If appealed, the case would go to the last stop in New York State, the Court of Appeals. If appealed again at that level, the case could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Update, 3:13 PM: The New York Observer has more. The decision reads, in part, “the ultimate private beneficiary of the scheme for the private annexation of Manhattanville was the progenitor of its own benefit.”

The full decision is here. A choice bit: “The exercise of eminent domain power…to benefit a private elite education institution is violative of the Takings Clause of the U.S. Constitution, article 1, § 7 of the New York Constitution.”

“N.Y. State Court Annuls Use of ‘Eminent Domain’ Power to Expand Columbia Campus” is the breaking headline on The New York Times, but there’s no full story yet. Stay tuned for more.


  1. Huh?  

    Considering that the Court of Appeals, New York's highest state court, said that Atlantic Yards was a-ok for eminent domain, I don't see how this ruling *doesn't* get reversed.

    • Anonymous  

      A. This aint Atlantic Yards. Many of the same justices (I believe all of them- the same circuit court which today)ruled in favor of Atlantic Yards ED

      B. It's much easier for a court of appeals to uphold a decision than to revers it.

      C. the decision was correct. This is a huge victory for affordable housing, against gentrification, and for the original character of our city being preserved. Lighten up and celebrate! Unless of course you're admin.

  2. pro expansion  

    this is ridiculous...this project IS a public project, columbia has been VERY accomodating and generous, eminent domain is perfectly appropriate: these are greedy, opportunistic businesses, NOT needy individuals who love their neihborhood

  3. The King of Spainq

    Great news, actually. The Constitution wins, and so do the owners.

    But, this isn't final at all; it could still go to Court of Appeals, which ruled for a bigger, more dubious project without financing or a future. Maybe by the grace of the Virgin Jane...

    This is a huge victory for affordable housing, against gentrification,

    Columbia is not the driving force behind gentrification, it will occur unabated in the area, to the east, and to the north. Besides, Columbia will still build its campus; it'll just build around Singh and make a deal with Spreyregan.

    original character of our city being preserved

    So you mean keeping the Irish and Jews who were there when Manhattanville was settled? Or the heavy industry that was there in the 1900s? It's the height of presumption to be talking about New York's Character in your 3rd semester.

    • Some  

      of us who were born here and remember a slightly less gentrified New York think that preserving things that have been there for years is worthwhile. Don't accuse people of not knowing what they're talking about when you obviously don't.

      Oh, and yeah, this won't save a single residential building, but the Manhattanville we know used to be very different. It has been industrial for years, but before Columbia bought the 90% of the area it now owns and started to purposefully let it go into disrepair so as to call it "blighted" it was a very different place. There used to be shops that weren't purely industrial - why do you think there were awnings built for car-part shops? Plus there were motels, tenement-ish dumbell shape residential buildings, lots of things. Not a huge residential population, but place matters, even if to a few people, even if those people don't live there anymore.

      • The King of Spain

        So you think that... but others think a different way.

        It's a cold fact that cities change for better or for worse, and this will be a good change on balance, especially now that the court snapped shut the eminent domain cookie jar. Of course New York has lost much as well, by as natural means as an economy can have. But what can you do to stop that change without fossilizing the city and wrecking the economy?

        Consider that Columbia's campus will create a place for thousands of students over the years. Consider that the displaced will also find new communities. Consider that if you're hanging out and patronizing new establishments in Williamsburg, or Red Hook, or Meatpacking, you're complicit in ruining someone else's community, by your standards.

        I don't grasp your line of argument regarding the the number of individuals in the property. There still are residents in 2-3 buildings up in the north of the area, and although there were others, their presence simply means that Columbia should take steps to buy the property legally and mitigate the move.

        The disrepair thing is a mostly myth cooked up by Sprayregan when he repainted his buildings in 2007, especially because Columbia repaired two landmark buildings. Columbia did begin terminating leases to increase the underutilization of the properties they owned, but if they weren't asking for government intervention, that would not have been an issue.

  4. Mill  

    Those on Columbia's campus have contributed much to both local and global communities in very positive ways. It is important that the campus expands and increases its capacity to continue producing the type of advances that its has become known for. While, some during this transition have been detrimentally effected, the pros will vastly outweigh the cons.

  5. andrew

    So, it seems that our justice system, unlike our political system, is amenable to reason and common sense - surprising, but encouraging to know that you cannot just buy yourself an exemption from democracy.

  6. Jack Donaghy  

    In New York real estate, there are no rules. It's like check-in at an Italian airport.

  7. I don't understand  

    why we are listening to the people on this comment thread. With all likelihood those against expansion aren't going to donate to Columbia and thus they don't matter. At all.

  8. pro expansion also  

    this is upsetting news. i'm not trying to be callous, but columbia hasn't grown in a long time. despite its imperfections, it's a great school and there's a reason why we chose to come here. however, many other (prestigious) institutions are expanding. if we don't, columbia will just get left behind. our students and faculty have so much to offer, but we need the space to do it.

    while opponents say this is displacing people and destroying a neighborhood, the expansion will offer a lot to the area. there are so many people in the columbia community who will hold the university responsible if it does not.

    • Apologist for theft  

      "Pro expansion" is Orwellian Newspeak for "I favor theft if it benefits my interests."

      Whining about a prestige issue betrays a serious personal insecurity on your part. Consider yourself fortunate to have been admitted to Columbia, concentrate on completing your studies rather than comparing your institutional manhood to other "prestigious institutions." You sound like someone who entered the College with a bit of resentment at not having been extended an offer by your first choice. Get over it.

  9. Don  

    Woohoo! Good I say. The issue of Columbia trying to expand its tentacles all over aside, one had better have a damn good reason before seizing private property, be it residential or not. And by "good reason" I mean strictly for PUBLIC use, because anything else gets you on a damn slippery slope. Columbia may be non-profit but they sure as hell aren't any charity, and they don't deserve the government to step in and take people's **** for them. But like I said, its less the specific issues that I care about than the legal precedent, for which this is a big win.

  10. good god  

    You people are insane. Economic expansion is NOT gentrification; if we followed your rules, NYC would still be come hick farming community. Thank god there weren't mindless, teary-eyed students waving signs protesting the construction of Midtown, Financial District, etc. during their construction.

  11. Don  

    Haha yea. Thank GOD for the Financial District!

  12. gah

    Stop bitching about 'gentrification'. We need to clear out the slums. Our taxes pay for the whole damned area, and the only "Thank You" we will ever receive from the residents will be a mugging.

  13. Rather than apparently encouraging the Empire State Development Corporation to appeal this court decision, Columbia University President Bollinger should now call a halt to any further West Harlem-Manhattanville construction project activity.

    He should also now announce that Columbia University is now willing to enter into serious negotiations with representatives of local community groups like the Harlem Tenants Council about ways to implement the local community board's democratically-formulated alternative community development plan for West Harlem and Morningside Heights.

    A few months ago, Harvard University's president announced that it was not going ahead with its planned campus expansion project across the river from Cambridge in Boston's Allston-Brighton neighborhood. So if the main purpose of the Columbia Administration's proposed West Harlem-Manhattanville campus expansion plan is to "keep up with Harvard" then it no longer seems necessary to expand since Harvard isn't now expanding. Perhaps some of the money that the Columbia University Administration was going to use on its campus expansion project should now be used to roll-back tuition rates for all of its students to 1990 levels, during the current U.S. economic depression?

  14. Anonymous

    If they carpet bombed M'ville, the piece of sh_t slum town wouldn't look any different. Sprayregen and the Singhs need to be taken out into the street and given a good M'ville beating.

    Rejpice all ye unwashed hippie whack jobs and lazy bum brothers looking for a handout.

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