For more than three years, Nicholas Sprayregen has kept his word to Columbia University.
The largest private landowner in the footprint of the university’s planned 17-acre West Harlem expansion, he has vowed time and again to fight the university’s attempts to oust him, so long as the school threatens the use of eminent domain.
Now, as the bulk of the area’s politicians have endorsed the expansion, community opposition has gone from a boil to a simmer and all but one other private-property owner has agreed to sell to the university, the fight’s final chapter is poised to be strictly a legal one between two parties: the university and Mr. Sprayregen.
Last Thursday, New York’s Empire State Development Corporation declared as blighted the area northwest of Columbia’s main campus, starting the process to acquire Mr. Sprayregen’s four properties through eminent domain. The action sets the stage for a lengthy legal battle with the institution, as the owner of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage vows to keep the challenge going.
Still, speaking from his West Harlem office on Friday, the energetic 45-year-old seemed to have adopted, at least temporarily, a more somber outlook than he usually conveys.
“I’m pessimistic that we will be successful,” he said, surrounded by piles of documents related to the expansion. “I have a feeling that if we’re going to get anything, the only way it’s going to happen is that we’re first going to have to lose in the New York courts and then appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and hopefully have them take on the case, and then win.
“That’s obviously a long shot.”
SINCE THE UNIVERSITY first announced its intention to expand in the area in 2002, and especially in the past year, as the proposal made its way through the city’s rezoning process, Mr. Sprayregen has watched the landscape around him shift dramatically, with a constant stream of victories for the university.
Three years ago, he was joined by five other business owners in a group that opposed the expansion and vowed to fight property takings. But as of mid-June, he is now the only member left, and just one other private landowner—the Singh family, which owns two gas stations—remains without a deal with Columbia.
Mr. Sprayregen met community opposition last year in an attempt to rezone his properties himself, and he has all but given up hope on a land-swap proposal he made to Columbia, saying university officials in a recent meeting seemed unwilling to part with the property he was eyeing.
The bulk of the political process surrounding the project has also come and gone as well. The local community board opposed the plan, but after a concession package, the City Council voted for the university’s requested rezoning, clearing the way for the school to proceed.
It was through this seven-month rezoning approval process that Mr. Sprayregen sought to gain enough momentum to leverage a deal with Columbia in which it would drop eminent domain from its plan. Local elected officials, particularly members of the City Council, are highly influential in this process, and at least in Mr. Sprayregen’s thinking, could have pushed Columbia to reach a deal he considered fair.
But Columbia proved successful in swaying the Harlem politicians to its side, perhaps the most significant element of its success with the expansion to date.
Enlisting the help of lobbyist Bill Lynch, a former aide to Mayor David Dinkins, the university emphasized the effect the expansion would have on creating jobs and providing housing. Just before the passage of the rezoning in December, it reached an agreement with the elected officials and members of the community to provide tens of millions in commitments to below-market-rate housing, open space, hiring practices and other concessions.
The plan won an easy approval in the City Council, and when the state released the blight study and a general project plan last week, it came with statements of support from, among others, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, Assemblyman Keith Wright and Governor David Paterson, who once represented the area and who previously called for a statewide moratorium on eminent domain.
Not on that list is State Senator Bill Perkins, the former councilman who took Mr. Paterson’s seat in 2006. Since the rezoning passed, Mr. Perkins has been the lone elected official in the area still critical of the expansion, saying there is a “hue and cry” in the community against the plan, and preparations for the use of eminent domain seem like a “cooked process.”
“The community does not feel as if their needs have been taken into consideration, and they do not feel that, in the end, they will be in the picture,” he said. “I think [Columbia officials] have done a poor job addressing some of the concerns that they have, and I’ve tried to help them recognize it, but I guess they felt they had what they needed in terms of so-called political support and decided to move on.”
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.”