Columbia Expansion Foe Offers Olive Branch

Nick Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-It-Away Self Storage, has become one of the biggest names, and deepest pockets, among opponents

Nick Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-It-Away Self Storage, has become one of the biggest names, and deepest pockets, among opponents of Columbia University’s expansion plan for West Harlem.

So what’s he doing making a peace offering? And why is he doing it through the press?

Mr. Sprayregen is proposing that he give up three of his buildings that are right smack-dab in the center of the 17-acre area where the Ivy League wants to create a third campus. In exchange, he wants the university to give him two pieces of land that it already owns on the eastern edge of the site.

Errol Louis mentioned the idea in passing in the Daily News last week. On Monday, Mr. Sprayregen told us a bit more:

“This is something I’ve been formulating with my team for three or four months and when I thought of it, the phrase that came to me is that it is a win-win-win situation,” he said. “The more we fleshed it out, the more we realized that the Achilles Heel in Columbia’s plan is that there is no affordable housing.”

He would build approximately 1,000 new apartments on the new sites, as well as on two other parcels he owns east of Broadway, in towers as high as 250 feet. Some of the units would be affordable, though he would not specify the number or degree of affordability except to say they would mirror the neighborhood’s demographics.

“We’d be able to build as much affordable housing as regulations permit and as government subsidies would be available to do,” he said.

The three buildings he would give up are located at 3261 Broadway, 614 West 131st Street, and 655 West 125th Street, which would provide Columbia a more contiguous campus on the west side of the No. 1 elevated tracks. The two buildings he would acquire would be the Nash Building, at 133rd and Broadway, and another parcel located a block south that now houses a low-slung building and parking lot.

In effect, Columbia would have to sacrifice some of its ambitions, giving up what The Observer calculates to be about 10 percent of the total building capacity it was seeking from the expansion, about 14 percent of its above-ground program, and requiring the university to shrink the floor plates of two proposed buildings east of Broadway The trade would also leave Mr. Sprayregen with more property than he currently has. But what Columbia would win would be priceless: cooperation from one of its staunchest foes.

Mr. Sprayregen said that he had not approached the university because the two parties had stopped talking more than a year ago.

“I’m hoping they will pick up the phone and call Norman Siegel,” he said, referring to his lawyer, “or there would be a public official who would step forward and bring us together.”

A Columbia official said the school is always open to negotiating with business owners.

“As four of the five other business owners who at one time were allied with Mr. Sprayregen can attest, once they sat down and spoke with Columbia, they discovered the university has a great understanding of their business issues and they are able to make successful, mutually satisfactory deals that serve the long-term interest of their businesses, their employees and the university’s goals for revitalizing the area,” David M. Stone, the executive vice president for communications, said. “We cannot comment on the substance of the offer because we don’t comment on business negotiations.”

By publicizing the proposal through the media, Mr. Sprayregen has made it harder for Columbia to say no. Given that the proposed use of eminent domain is one of the biggest objections to the expansion plan, the university would be hard pressed to insist on its use if there was another option out there.

Mr. Sprayregen said that the two other business owners who have not made deals with Columbia support his decision and may try to get involved in the swap somehow.

“It’s not another way of selling. I don’t look at it like that in my head or my heart,” he said. “This would be a really good compromise for myself and the community in terms of what I really care about, in terms of my staying here.”

UPDATE: This item was updated with more precise information about the amount of space that Columbia would have to give up from its plan.

Columbia Expansion Foe Offers Olive Branch