Columbia Expansion Holdout Sues To Block Eminent Domain

The owner of a set of storage buildings in West Harlem, Nick Sprayregen, has filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s use of eminent domain, he said this afternoon. The state has commenced actions to acquire the properties in connection with Columbia University’s planned 17-acre expansion in the area.

In Mr. Sprayregen’s 107-page petition, he challenged the state’s actions as unconstitutional, alleging the development is not intended for civic use. The petition claims that the area is not blighted, as required by law; that the studies demonstrating blight were highly flawed; and that the public approval process was rigged.

Among other claims, Mr. Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-it-Away Storage, said that the city and state collaborated secretly more than five years ago to determine a strategy for the project, and quotes email excerpts that suggest some skepticism on the part of a city official about the process.

“Where a development agency colluded with a developer to drive out businesses,” the petition says, “vacate buildings, and then run them down, and then hired the developer’s own consultant to give the agency the basis for a blight finding, this case raises the questions of the proper limit of judicial deference to agency determinations.”

More from the petition [also see below]:

This case is about the abuse of the government’s power of eminent domain to secure for a developer a contested area of West Harlem it had long sought to control and for which it had formed a fully blown plan. This case is about the secret collaboration between ESDC and New York City agencies in a complex plan to give that developer, an elite private university, everything it wanted, without compromise or limitation, while evading public review and accountability. This case is about favoritism shown to an elite private university over community interests, clearly and consistently expressed through the local Community Planning Board … And this case is about how ESDC, in its determination to maximize Columbia’s private benefit, overreached its statutory authorization, made findings in bad faith, and fabricated pretextual purposes to cover up the illegality of its dominant purpose.

Eminent domain law in New York tends to afford the state a large amount of power, at least relative to other states, so it seems safe to assume Mr. Sprayregen has an uphill fight on his hands.

Also in Harlem eminent domain-related news, a group of business owners in East Harlem has filed suit against the city in connection with the Bloomberg administration’s plans to develop a large mixed-use project along 125th Street. In claims laid out in the press release here and the lawsuit here, the group argues that the city is violating a number of provisions associated with the urban renwal area where the site is based (including the fact that a large number of the planned apartments be market-rate).

The state declined to comment on the Columbia case, and a city lawyer said the city was reviewing the East Harlem claims.

The Columbia-related petition in full:

ESDL Case – Appellate Div – TIA Verified Petition – 1 21 09

Columbia Expansion Holdout Sues To Block Eminent Domain