Zero Hour in West Harlem

In contrast to the rezoning, the use of eminent domain does not require approval from elected officials, and now that the state has declared the area blighted, condemnations could begin in coming months, after a public comment period.

At that point, Mr. Sprayregen expects to begin litigation, and his attorney, Norman Siegel, said he expects to challenge the finding of “blight,” a requisite for condemnation.

“Over the past seven years, Columbia has purchased many of these lots and then they had a practice of vacating and undermaintaining the property,” Mr. Siegel said. “They benefit from the conditions that they either created or allowed to continue.”

Columbia has previously denied any intentional neglect of the properties in the footprint, and David Stone, a university spokesman, said via e-mail, “We also continue to be hopeful that we can reach mutually beneficial, negotiated agreements with the two remaining commercial property owners.”

As for the effect litigation would have on the start of the expansion, Mr. Stone declined to speculate, but part of the area where Columbia wants to build its first buildings contains one of Mr. Sprayregen’s properties and the two gas stations belonging to the Singh family. (The Singhs did not respond to requests for comment.)

 

NEW YORK’S LAWS on eminent domain are viewed as rather favorable to the sta
te when compared with other laws nationwide, making the climb for Mr. Sprayregen a distinctly uphill one.

Landowners in other eminent domain cases often hope that a prolonged legal battle will derail a project through a changing political landscape or economic climate. But Columbia’s plan seems prone to more stability than a typical private developer’s. The university has a multibillion dollar endowment; already owns the bulk of the land in the footprint; and has always said the expansion is a long-term proposition, and thus a two-year fight through the court system—landowners in Brooklyn have been challenging eminent domain in the Atlantic Yards project for more than a year and a half—does not seem likely to spoil the university’s plans.

Such a fight can be expensive for both sides. For Atlantic Yards, an Empire State Development Corporation spokesman said the state has spent more than $8 million on legal fees, which apply to litigation and other expenses (the state’s fees are reimbursed by developer Forest City Ratner, and Columbia University will reimburse the state for fees related to eminent domain).

Mr. Sprayregen, who estimated he has spent about $1 million so far in legal expenses and other fees, said he was prepared to commit a substantial sum to continue the fight.

“I think if we’re able to take it all the way to the Supreme Court, it will cost another $2 million,” he said. “Obviously, we now have a real legal fight on our hands.”

ebrown@observer.com