State Court Rules Eminent Domain Use for Columbia West Harlem Campus Unconstitutional [Updated]

In an unexpected major decision, a New York appellate court has overturned the use of eminent domain to create a new West Harlem campus for Columbia University, ruling the action unconstitutional.

The cases were brought by the defiant owner of a set of storage warehouses in West Harlem, Nick Sprayregen, and the owners of two gas stations in the footprint for the 17-acre campus, called Manahttanville. Mr. Sprayregen sued to block the land takings in January, after the use of eminent domain was approved by the state’s development agency, the Empire State Development Corporation.

Columbia had said it needed eminent domain to establish a full, contiguous campus, and then build a large, interconnected underground facility throughout the area. Thus all the property owners needed to be removed from the mostly industrial district.

Warner Johnston, an ESDC spokesman, said the state intends to appeal the action.

“The process employed by ESDC predetermined the unconstitutional outcome, was bereft of facts which established that the neighborhood in question was blighted, and ultimately precluded the petitioners from presenting a full record before either the ESDC or, ultimately, this Court,” the 3-2 decision said. “In short, it is a skein worth unraveling.”

I reached Mr. Sprayregen briefly, who simply said “Unbelievable; unbelievable,” adding that he’d have more to say once he gets through the decision.

The decision, written by Justice James Catterson, finds a difference between the use of eminent domain for Columbia and in other cases such as the landmark Kelo v. New London case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 upheld the use of eminent domain for economic development. In the case of Columbia, the decision says, the clear beneficiary was Columbia, not the public. Columbia, by buying up property and not maintaining sidewalks, helped to create blight, the court found, and the university underwrote costs for the entire project, rather than the city or state committing funds:

“The record shows no evidence that ESDC placed any constraints upon Columbia’s plans, required any accommodation of existing, or competing uses, or any limitations on the scale or configuration of Columbia’s scheme for the annexation of Manhattanville.

Thus, the record makes plain that rather than the identity of the ultimate private beneficiary being unknown at the time that the redevelopment scheme was initially contemplated, the ultimate private beneficiary of the scheme for the private annexation of Manhattanville was the progenitor of its own benefit.

In this case, the record overwhelmingly establishes that the true beneficiary of the scheme to redevelop Manhattanville is not the community that is supposedly blighted, but rather Columbia University, a private elite education institution. These remarkably astonishing conflicts with Kelo on virtually every level cannot be ignored, and render the taking in this case unconstitutional.”

It also was highly critical of the process of determining blight, a major component of the use of eminent domain. The state had hired the consulting firm AKRF to do both the environmental review for the project and the determination of blight. Ultimately, the ESDC brought in a second contractor to replicate the original blight study, but, as the court pointed out, this was well after the decision had been made to use eminent domain.

This is all a bit surprising given that the state’s top court, the Court of Appeals, just last month upheld the use of eminent domain for the Atlantic Yards project, a private $4.9 billion mixed-use development that includes a basketball arena for the Nets. A Brooklyn [corrected] appellate court heard the Atlantic Yards case, and in May ruled to uphold the use of eminent domain (The Atlantic Yards Report blog, first to report this news, offers its take on this here.) That project, however, did include substantial public funds, and the open-air rail yards on which the project would rise are visibly blighted.

The ruling has also caught the eye of a set of business owners at Willets Point in Queens, where the city seems likely to use eminent domain. 

“We look forward to the same kind of vindication if the city coerces eminent domain on Willets Point,” business owner Jake Bono said in a statement. 

That project, however, is a full city initiative for which no private developer has yet been identified. 

If upheld by the state’s top court, the implications of the decision for Columbia are unclear. The more than $6 billion project is a major part of the university’s expansion plans over coming years and decades, and it has said it needs the space to create higher quality research and other academic facilities. Without a contiguous footprint and the multi-story below-grade facility that comes with it, the university argued, it would have had to build far less overall space, or build with much greater density above ground. 

A spokeswoman for Columbia declined to comment on the decision. Columbia is not a party on the lawsuit.


  State Court Rules Eminent Domain Use for Columbia West Harlem Campus Unconstitutional [Updated]