Magazine Preview: Imminent Demolition

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The latest issue of The Blue and White will be on campus this week.

Nick Sprayregen (illustration by Maddy Kloss)

Early this summer the New York State Court of Appeals decided that Columbia University may legally take possession of Nick Sprayregen’s assets in Manhattanville under eminent domain law. Now an appeal to the Supreme Court is his only chance to save his property; if the Supreme Court declines to hear the case, Sprayregen’s Tuck-It-Away storage buildings could be demolished within a year. As Columbia begins to raze the neighborhood around him, Features Editor Liz Naiden asks Sprayregen to reflect on the recent decision, the prospects of appeal, and the future of Manhattanville.

Blue and White: When you heard the decision in June, what was your reaction?

Nick Sprayregen: We were always concerned that, if they were going to render a quick decision, they would probably go against us. And so when we heard that the decision was coming and it was only a few weeks after the hearing, I figured it was probably not going to be going our way. We were especially disappointed with the decision because it seemed that the court totally abdicated its responsibility to examine the facts in a comprehensive manner and to render a thorough decision. It’s one thing to issue a decision where there is a very lengthy review of the facts and the law. But in this case it was apparent to us that they gave virtually no consideration to the voluminous—in our opinion—evidence to buttress our case. I can only assume that what we have done over the last five or six years did not make any difference.

B&W: What do you think they overlooked specifically?

NS: There are specific requirements in the law that allow the government to take private property for use as a civic project, and the fact is that never before in New York State has private property been forcibly taken to hand over to a private university or a school. So on that basis alone, we were shocked that we didn’t prevail. The statutes don’t specifically say that a private school constitutes a civic project.

In terms of the blight issue, we were shocked also because, the fact is, this area was not blighted. Columbia bought and managed what they now call “blighted” property, and they should not be able to benefit from the work of their own dirty hands and misdeeds. Something is really unfair and wrong if the entity applying for eminent domain intentionally brings on conditions such as vacancy and disrepair and then cites those very conditions as evidence that the area is blighted. Plus, there has never been any independent blight study on Manhattanville. That is just one of numerous differences between us and Atlantic Yards. Long before [Bruce] Ratner and the [New Jersey] Nets ever came up, there were studies stating that Atlantic Yards was blighted. But here, every blight study has been done since Columbia declared its interest in the area, and by firms employed by Columbia previously.

Another interesting aspect of this is that part of the basis of the Manhattan court ruling in our favor was its reference to the most recent and important United States Supreme Court eminent domain case, which is Kelo v. the City of New London in 2005. In the lower court they made specific reference to that. In our papers we make numerous references to Kelo, yet in the State Court of Appeals’ decision, they ignore it! They ignore a United States Supreme Court decision just from a few years ago having to do with eminent domain. It’s one thing if they take it on and come up with a position that’s counter to ours and it’s thought-out, it’s reasoned, and there’s law to back it up. But there is not one sentence on Kelo in the entire Court of Appeals decision.

B&W: You said that never before in New York state has eminent domain been used to give private land to a private school. But eminent domain has been used to give land to other private entities in the past, correct?

NS: Well certainly the most recent example is in Brooklyn. Traditionally, until about the last 50 or 60 years, eminent domain has been used for what the Constitution says is its use—in this case, for the government to build something for the public benefit. So, for example, if it were an expansion of the CUNY or SUNY system, everything would be off the table. You may not like it, but that would be “public use.” If it’s a highway, public hospital, likewise, it’s public use.

Unfortunately, what’s gone on in the last 50 or 60 years is there’s been a bastardization of that so it goes from the Constitution saying only “public use,” to “public purpose,” and then to “public benefit.” And now we’ve gone so far that any type of economic development can be used to justify eminent domain. If you have any type of business, you’re susceptible to having it taken away just because there’s a larger or more powerful entity that says, “I’ll be able to generate more tax dollars or more jobs from your property than you can.” And to me, that is an unbelievably slippery slope, totally at odds with our Constitution and totally at odds with what our country is supposed to stand for.

B&W: Do you think there are any instances where private interest can serve the public good?

NS: Yes. But anything that moves away from the clear-cut delineation in our Constitution of public use runs the hazard that it will snowball into more and more abuse because once you start moving away from public use, there’s really no bright line anymore.

That being said, the participation of private entities in projects that use eminent domain can be acceptable. Because I think there’s no doubt that, in many instances, the private sector does a better job of doing things than the government. But it needs to be a project that is initiated and governed and controlled by the government. The fact is that the Manhattanville project only exists because of Columbia University. The government’s power of eminent domain is only being used here because Columbia couldn’t gather the land itself. Aside from that, it was Columbia’s lawyers, Columbia’s consultants, Columbia’s engineers, Columbia’s money that wrote all of the re-zoning texts, that wrote the general project plan that was a justification for the use of eminent domain and that ultimately wrote the conditions study that determined that there was blight in the neighborhood. How can it possibly be fair to use of the government’s power of eminent domain so that a private entity can say “I want my neighbor’s property and in order to justify it, first we’re going to buy up all the land that we can and let it deteriorate and then we’re going to hire a consultant to do the blight study who’ll be paid by us and who is already working for us and has been working for us for years to justify the use of eminent domain!” It’s almost comical when you take a step back and look at it conceptually.

B&W: So Columbia initiating the project is problematic, but if the state had initiated eminent domain for a public use and contracted to a private company to provide some service, it would be okay?

NS: Precisely. In Kelo, the majority voted that the use of eminent domain was justified specifically by the nature of the plan for reuse. The Kelo decision lays out five or six aspects of a legitimate eminent domain reuse. One of those was that the entire plan was laid out by the city. Another was that the identification of any private entities to be hired was not known at the time that it all took place. In this case it’s exactly opposite.

I’ve never been against the University’s expansion. The University likes to paint me as someone who’s against their expansion; that I’m someone who’s against progress. That’s not true. The fact is that I’m against the use of eminent domain for a private entity. And as you can see walking around here, this project is going to happen regardless of what happens with me. They’re already starting, alright? They even started before they got the decision overturned. It was going to happen no matter what. They said otherwise in their public announcements. They kept saying “I don’t know how we can proceed without the full basement.”

And they came up with this brilliant idea to marginalize me and the other property owners by saying to the community we won’t use eminent domain on the residents, only on the businesses. Behind the scenes—and we know this through our Freedom of Information request—Columbia had been feverishly working with the city and the various housing agencies to enter into agreements to take over the residential buildings. So yes, they’re not using eminent domain, but they’re still trying to move out the residents against their will. They also promised that the residents will stay here for another 15 years or so. Well, I got a residential building right next to me here, that’s a residential building right over there. So why is it that I’m going to have to move out maybe in the next six months from here so Columbia can have my land when they’ve already promised that they’re not going to take the land of the two buildings right next to me?

There are just such logistical holes in their argument that they must have everything. It’s outrageous and it’s especially outrageous coming from a school, an Ivy League school like Columbia! You know, I really say shame on the administration. It’s nothing but greed.

B&W: You know, of course, that a few years ago, there was a lot of student action at Columbia surrounding this. What do you think of the student involvement in the process, and what role do you think students can or should play in the future?

NS: We did have the support of various student coalitions and groups who were terrific throughout all of this. I was very impressed with the student journalism covering all of this as if it was a significant story. When Columbia cites all of the community dialogue, it’s all window-dressing and it’s all bullshit. The fact is that when you look at the parameters of the original ‘02 plan and when you look at the final plan they’re almost exactly the same! No significant changes, there was no modifications of any meaningfulness.

So I think as a student, regardless of your feelings on this one issue, I think you should be damned disheartened to see how much the university doesn’t care and doesn’t take into account the opinions of others. All of this talk of community dialogue and giving back to the community is all backed by nothing but cynicism. Whatever the administration does and what has been done is all because they think it can gain something. But other than that, they will keep on marching forward until all the other opposition is gone.

B&W: What’s next for you and your company?

NS: Well, we are busy preparing our brief to the United States Supreme Court, which should be ready and be submitted within the next two to three weeks. We’ll see—our chances are unfortunately very, very, very low.

We’ll be okay, but the deck is so stacked up against everyone. The vast majority of the people, unfortunately for them, didn’t have the resources to do what I’ve done for the past six years [laughs]. And still at the end of six years we get morally bankrupt higher court of New York decision, which are basically rubber stamps for whatever Columbia and the state wants to do. To add insult to injury, we got a notice about three weeks ago that the state had applied to the same court of appeals, and the court of appeals approved their decision to force me to reimburse them $100,000 for printing costs. From what I understand, the granting of costs like that is never done when it’s in a battle between an individual and a government, and especially in a case where we might have won. It’s usually in a case where there are two private parties and one just brings on these frivolous claims and lawsuits, so to try to work to stop them you levee printing costs, legal fees and all. But to do it in this case is outrageous. I think they were trying to send a message to others in New York—don’t try to take on the state. We’re going to beat you down, you’re going to lose, and we’re going to punish you.

I really just wanted to make a difference in how eminent domain is used in New York State. If this is upheld, it will make things worse for everyone. And this whole sorry case will go into the books of what is referred to as making bad law.

B&W: If the Supreme Court were to refuse to hear the case, what would be the time frame for the Columbia’s takeover of Tuck-It-Away?

NS: Our understanding is that once we submit the case, the opposing party—New York State—has 30 days to submit their response and then by the year’s end we’ll hear one way or the other. When they make their decision it’s just a one sentence, either “we accept the case” or “we won’t accept the case.” So we could be gone less than a year from now.

B&W: Demolition is already going on in Manhattanville. What has it been like for you to watch some of the buildings around you in the neighborhood kind of…

NS: Go down? It’s remarkable, especially in the last several months. The University’s been moving very fast to demolish buildings. It’s disheartening. I’m beginning to see that if things don’t turn around and go our way, this business and everything in it will be demolished as well without a second thought.

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  1. Michael Thaddeus  

    Nick Sprayregen says that "never before in New York State has private property been forcibly taken to hand over to a private university or a school." This seems incorrect. Seventeen blocks on the West Side were seized through eminent domain and demolished in the 1950s and '60s. One of the beneficiaries was Fordham University, which built its law school on the site. (See Robert Caro's The Power Broker, or the Wikipedia page on Lincoln Center.) Perhaps Sprayregen's assertion is true in some very technical sense, but not on a reasonable interpretation.

    On the other hand, I have to admit I find the Kelo decision, and the Court of Appeals decision in this case, very discouraging. While I have little sympathy for Sprayregen personally, I do support the principle that the government should not expropriate someone to help another private party, even one as deserving as Columbia.

  2. Anon

    I heartily agree. I'm also quite sick of hearing this guy say the student body is behind him.

  3. This  

    interview is brilliant! really allows you to sympathize with Sprayregen and his viewpoint.

  4. sad  

    Sorry Bwog, but I think you're killing most of the comment section conversation that used to happen on posts like this by posting so many damn things every day. Yes, there were trolls, there will always be trolls, we can all agree that trolls/anonymized nasty people/dbags suck. Point is no one is talking anymore, and that's why I and a lot of other people read Bwog. If you guys want to avoid becoming the internet equivalent of a bulletin board you should consider that.

  5. M'ville blight  

    I first moved here 17 years ago, before the Fairway, LONG before Dinosaur BBQ, and that neighborhood was BLIGHTED. It was terrifying. When Fairway opened in, like, 1996 I refused to go there after dark--and I'd been living in Manhattan for over 20 years at that point, not to mention spending massive amounts of time here in the urban desolation of the 1970s.

    Now there are stores and restaurants and activity. And Columbia was STILL able to prove the area suffered from blight. Sprayregen is disingenuous in saying that Columbia created and cultivated the blight. The area is blighted despite all that's been done to reinvigorate it.

  6. Alum

    "...the New York State Court of Appeals decided that Columbia University may legally take possession of Nick Sprayregen’s assets in Manhattanville under eminent domain law."

    Not so. It ruled that the Empire State Development Corporation can force him to sell the property to it, and that the ESDC can then sell the property to Columbia. The introduction incorrectly implies that Columbia can take the property directly and that Sprayregen won't be compensated.

  7. Alum

    Sprayregen devotes most of this interview to legal issues, but he's not a lawyer. He has a very good lawyer who would have been a better interview subject for these issues. It's like asking a dissatisfied patient to explain what his doctor should have done differently instead of asking another doctor.

    I'm interested in what Sprayregen has to say about many aspects of the case, but his opinions about the law don't seem pertinent.

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