New York State Green Lights Eminent Domain in Manhattanville

Written by

At a news conference this morning, the Empire State Development Corporation unanimously voted to use the power of eminent domain to seize the remaining commercial holdouts in Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion zone. That’s bad news for the two property owners who have still refused to sell: storage space owner Nick Sprayregen and gas station owner Gurnam Singh, who can now legally be forced to sell their property to the state, which would then let Columbia take over the land.

Sprayregen, the far more vocal of the pair, has vowed to fight the eminent domain decision in court, having already entered several different lawsuits challenging whether Columbia’s acquisition of the land will actually help the “public good.” “I don’t want to have to sue you,” said Sprayregen’s lawyer, Norman Siegel, to the staid ESDC board members. “You leave us no choice but to litigate.” He said he felt sure the case would reach the Supreme Court, where ESDC’s awkward history with AKRF and previous allegations it was colluding with Columbia would be weighted heavily.

For Columbia, though, today’s decision marks the end of several years spent pushing its Manhattanville expansion through various government approvals, and the beginning of what’s likely to be several years of tussling with Sprayregen.

Though the Singhs have been reclusive throughout the process, they attended the meeting today and spoke through their 17 year-old daughter, Aman Kaur.  “I’d appreciate it if everyone put down their BlackBerrys and listened to what I have to say,” she began, going on to describe her family’s 15-year history in the neighborhood. The two gas stations the family owns are their sole source of income, and Kaur wondered how her parents, immigrants from India, would make a living or pay for her to go to college. “I am literally begging the state for these properties. This is my past, my present, my future,” she said.

In their comments, many of the plan’s critics expressed a sense of resignation. “It’s very clear to me that this is an exercise in futility,” said one. “Your decision is virtually already 100% made,” added another.  A representative from the West Harlem Local Development Corporation (LDC) asked the ESDC to consider pushing back the vote until Columbia and the LDC signed the community benefits agreement.

Though Columbia already owns over 80% of the property in its proposed expansion zone, it says it needs the land under the Singh and Sprayregen properties to construct a 7-story underground structure that will house a bus depot, parking, loading docks, and utilities.

The decision comes seven months after the ESDC approved Columbia’s expansion plan and declared the area “blighted,” and a year after the city’s Land Use Committee approved the plan. Check out our past coverage for more background on Manhattanville.


Manhattanville for Dummies:

Community Board 9 (CB9): a group of West Harlem (Hamilton Heights, Manhattanville, and some of Morningside Heights) residents and business owners who applied to the Borough President’s office and were selected to represent their neighborhood.

Local Development Corporation (LDC): Because CB9 doesn’t have the power to negotiate with developers, the city created the West Harlem LDC. It’s a group of CB9 members, public housing tenants, environmentalists, artists, and elected officials who meet regularly to decide what they want from Columbia in return for the expansion.

Community Benefits Agreement: This is what the LDC is working for. It’s an agreement that will decide how much Columbia will put into an affordable housing fund, what environmental standards it will use, how much funding it’ll give to the arts in Harlem.

Tags: , , , ,


  1. Blighted?  

    probably because columbia owns a large amount of property there already, but makes it look shoddy by refusing to maintain it

    in a word, slumlord

  2. idiots  

    I wonder if the "public good" calculation factors in how discouraging this is to everyone who has ever considered offering goods or services. Or owning things.

  3. CogInSystem  

    There's gotta be a "Who owns New York?" joke in here somewhere.

  4. Conflicted  

    Ah, I am so lost. My liberal elitist tendencies tell me that I should support small business owners who are getting run out of town by an extremely wealthy organization and its political friends. But my liberal elitist school is telling me that everything is okay and that it is making the world a better place. Please, Michael Moore, make a movie and tell me what to think.

    • idiot

      There are only two major property owners left in Manhattanville. Maybe you should feel bad for Singh. Sprayregen is definitely not "a small business owner... getting run out of town by an extremely wealthy organization and its political friends." He's a very wealthy (multi-millionaire) and smart businessman who wants to develop his property into high-end residential real estate once Columbia moves in. If anything it should be the College Republicans and Columbia Libertarians getting upset over the "violation" of property rights. (Hint: the constitution says its OK for the government to take your land if you get paid for it. more importantly, the supreme court says it too.)

      And you're missing the whole "Columbia is going to create jobs, hire locally, and use local and minority contractors in the development of the new campus" part of the argument. And the "Community Extortion, er, I mean Benefits" package that Columbia has agreed to cough up.

  5. uh oh  

    I had hoped referring to myself as an elitist would have tipped you off to the satire, and was SURE that invoking Michael Moore would have. I'm sorry that I was too subtle. Have a great break!

  6. so...  

    So at what level of income does it become okay for the government to use eminent domain?

  7. cc09  

    I just wish this whole thing could have happened like 10years ago, then this science senior would have had a super cool space to do research in.

  8. Another  

    victory for Capitalism! I think the residents of Manhattanville will view this as a blessing after a couple years of thousands of people being employed by the university.

    • if anything...

      let's see, it's a state-sponsored project to strip some people of their property rights in order to facilitate a megaproject by another organization. if anything, it's a victory for corporatism.

  9. The King of Spain

    "probably because columbia owns a large amount of property there already, but makes it look shoddy by refusing to maintain it"

    Do you believe everything you are told? The ESDC is basing their blight declaration on 2003 economic numbers. Additionally, the neighborhood looks about the same as it used to, except that in 2006, Sprayregan painted all of his buildings so he could say Columbia wasn't maintaining their properties.

  10. anti-expansion

    you anti-expansion people are all idiots... columbia is forking over millions of your tuition and endowment dollars to these people in cold hard cash, plus has agreed to exclusively employ them and even house and educate some of their kids. instead, you support a manipulative multi-millionaire landlord who wants to convert his holdings into luxury condos and price these people out? wake up you fuckin bearded, pot smoking idiots.

  11. We win  

    but we also liquidated a lot to buy up the land before the recession began, so we kind of got F'ed in A too as the previous commenter mentioned. Looking into the future, I can hope for is that the expansion won't be another "What What in the Butt" for CU

  12. Alumnus

    Good decision--Manhattanville was the definition of blight when Columbia began buying there. The neighborhood has been improving of late due to Columbia taking an interest in it--others now see value in it. The Singhs need a good lawyer or financial representative to negotiate the price based on the land value and their forgone future earnings. Columbia paying top dollar for that gas station is like winning the lottery. I hope they didn't lose their best price by waiting.

    • you raise

      an important point. with 1) the approval of eminent domain, and 2) the real estate market tumbling, it's possible that the hold outs held out too long.

      Columbia will inform them that under eminent domain the state will likely offer you $X. We'll give you $X + 10% and let's call it a day. If that's not how it actually work, that's the new negotiating dynamic at least.

    • Yeah  

      Agreed. Given the gas station owners' own description of themselves, the fight seems irrational. The odds of winning are not very promising in the long run, and settling will almost certainly net them a better deal than the bitter end. Given the publicity / sympathy intrinsic in being the "victims", they can probably get a decent deal from the school, and there is no reason they cannot buy up some property elsewhere (yay falling prices) or leverage the attention into another atetntion. The "only source of income" argument sounds nice, but it is either an utter publicity ploy, or a sign that the owners are unable or unwilling to think strategically and maximize their expected payoff, and have no aspirations or business savvy beyond running a gas station.

  13. Hmm  

    It really is weird how the politics around this have turned out. Reclaiming private property for the public good, the ends justifying the means, is exactly what socialism is about, whereas a victory for capitalism would be a victory for the individual - the entrepreneur/small business-owner.

    And I have to feel for Gurnam Singh. If you have dealt in any capacity with administrators (particularly Facilities, who's head is leading the Manhattanville project) you'd know just how little their interest in serving students is, how incompetent they are, and how ridiculous they are about money.

    • Alum

      He's not dealing with facilities. Their job is to deal with buildings, etc. that Columbia already owns and uses, not buildings it hopes to acquire and tear down. There are administrators with expertise in negotiating real estate deals, but they work in IRE and/or the central administration. CU may have outside contractors in this role, too.

  14. hah

    at long last, Lee C. Bollinger has succeeded in acquiring LEBENSRAUM for Columbia!

© 2006-2015 Blue and White Publishing Inc.