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.