Town Beats Gown in Manhattanville

Columbia University, which for years has been looking to expand its Morningside Heights campus into West Harlem, suffered a surprising defeat today when, as Eliot Brown reported, a state court ruled against the use of eminent domain.

There’s been longstanding opposition to the expansion, both inside and outside the university, but until today Columbia’s victory looked like a foregone conclusion. Back in 2007, Eliot wrote (in the New York Sun) that the university’s lobbying costs had topped $1.5 million. But a few landowners held out, most famously Nick Spreyregan, the owner of Tuck-it-Away Storage.

“These eminent domain fights are David vs. Goliath and in the case like this, the thing one guy like me can do is try to get his message out,” Mr. [Nick] Sprayregen said.

Today the Columbia Spectator recapped the legal challenges brought by Sprayregan and others:

The ESDC was given the green light in December 2008 to invoke eminent domain, and then give Columbia control of the land to build the Manhattanville campus. The two private property owners within this site–Tuck-It-Away Storage owner Nick Sprayregen and family gas station owners Parminder Kaur and Gurnam Singh–filed lawsuits against the state contesting this decision. . . .

Nick Sprayregen, who has spent years–and what has likely reached millions of dollars–fighting the Columbia campus expansion on varied fronts, said he and his lawyer Norman Siegel (former New York Civil Liberties Union Director and candidate for Public Advocate this fall) “were always cautiously optimistic,” but didn’t really expect to win.

Now, he said, “The majority of the court obviously saw what we saw, that the whole finding of blight was preposterous and engineered specifically to give all the private property over to Columbia. They’re shining a light finally that collusion and conflicts of interests evident in this relationship between Columbia and the state cannot be allowed to continue, and thus they’re putting a stop to this taking of land by Columbia.”

Columbia’s efforts at expansion, like N.Y.U.’s, have created plenty of friction over the years. But despite the school’s aura of big-money institutional invincibility, this isn’t the first time it’s been thwarted by underdogs: in 1968, Columbia students and Harlem activists stopped a proposal to build a gym in Morningside Park.

Of course, in this case, the outcome seems less the product of revolutionary fervor than a sign of changing times–presumptive expansion as a vestige of the boom years. Town Beats Gown in Manhattanville