Nick Sprayregen, the storage business owner who has taken a high-profile stand against Columbia’s use of eminent domain in West Harlem, faced a similar situation in East Harlem last year.
But instead of fighting to keep control over his warehouse, he sold the 23,000-square foot lot at 129th Street and Park Avenue to Consolidated Edison for $26.7 million to make way for an electrical substation, according to the city’s online property transfer records.
Supporters of Columbia’s expansion, who see Mr. Sprayregen as a major obstacle to the proposal’s passage in the City Council, say that the sale shows that he is hiding behind a veil of principle but will eventually sell to the university just as he did to Con Ed. Word of the sale appeared on flyers distributed by Columbia’s supporters at a public hearing in August under the heading, “Inform and Empower Our West Harlem Community.”
“It’s a smokescreen,” said Rev. Reggie Williams, a member of the Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville, a new group organized this summer by Columbia’s strategic consultants. “It is disingenuous to make the argument against eminent domain when you stand to benefit by driving up the price.”
Mr. Sprayregen, however, said that the two situations were quite different because state law specifically indicates that utility companies can use eminent domain for their purposes, while it is less clear under what circumstances the state could seize property on behalf of a private entity like Columbia. Residents and business owners in Brooklyn, for example, are fighting in court to block Forest City Ratner from taking their property for the Atlantic Yards complex.
“Con Ed came to me a couple of years ago and said, ‘If you don’t agree to sell to us, we are going to condemn the property,’” Mr. Sprayregen said. “I fought for a year to finally get it up to the approximate market price and then I sold.”
Mr. Sprayregen, who owns five storage facilities in West Harlem, said that the deal was reached just as Con Ed was about to begin condemnation proceedings. Chris Olert, a spokesman for Con Ed, said he could not comment on the sale. He said that while the utility does have the power of eminent domain, it seeks to reach a negotiated settlement before beginning condemnation proceedings.
Mr. Sprayregen said that he is opposing Columbia’s use of eminent domain for two reasons: out of principle, and also because it gives the university the power to seize the property through condemnation if he does not accept its offering price.
“We are prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court,” he said. “I am not going to be squeezed into negotiating with eminent domain hanging over my head. If eminent domain is taken off the table, I can make a rational decision with an even playing field. Otherwise, it is a basic form of extortion.”
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