Columbia University's Harlem Expansion Is Upheld by New York's Top Court

Columbia University won a ruling by New York’s highest court that allows it to proceed with a $6.3 billion expansion of its campus through use of the state’s eminent domain power to acquire property.

The New York Court of Appeals in Albany today held that the Empire State Development Corp.’s findings of “blight” and its determination that the property could be condemned to promote land use improvement were rationally based. The court also found the Columbia project met a “civic purpose” that lets the state exercise eminent domain.

In its unanimous decision, New York’s top court reversed a lower court ruling that stopped the state from taking property from the owners of commercial establishments in the 17-acre area without their consent. The judges cited their decision last year to allow seizure by eminent domain of property to make way for developer Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, which includes a basketball arena.

“The proposed project here is at least as compelling in its civic dimension as the private development” in Brooklyn, Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick wrote in today’s decision. “We give deference to the findings and determination of the ESDC that the project qualifies as both a land use improvement project and as a civic project serving a public purpose.”

Columbia, which isn’t a party to the litigation, hailed the ruling.

‘Long-Term Revitalization’

“We are gratified by the Court’s unanimous decision and look forward to moving ahead with the long-term revitalization of these blocks in Manhattanville that will create thousands of good jobs for New Yorkers and help our City and State remain a global center of pioneering academic research,” Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger said today in a statement.

Commercial property owners affected include gas stations and storage facilities.

“We strongly and categorically disagree with the ruling of the court and we are giving serious consideration to asking the United States Supreme Court to review the decision,” Nicholas Sprayregen, owner of self-storage company Tuck-It-Away Inc., a business in the case, said in an e-mailed statement. “It is truly a sad day for anyone who cares about the sanctity of private property rights.”

Supreme Court

Norman Siegel, an attorney for Tuck-It-Away, confirmed in an interview he would petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case. He has 90 days to do so, he said.

“This is the first time ever that a private education institution can constitute a civic project,” Siegel said.

That decision would allow for other private schools such as New York University, which is also expanding its campus, to acquire residential property.

“They can say ‘We’re expanding, we need to condemn private property for educational purposes,’ -- that’s what the decision today gave a green light to. Terrible precedent,” Siegel said.

Today’s ruling confirms that Columbia’s project complies with state law and the acquisition of the holdout properties is “essential to realizing the vision for the Manhattanville campus as it was approved by the state,” Warner Johnston, a spokesman for the Empire State Development Corp., said in an e- mail.

Construction Jobs

Johnston said the project will be one of the largest to move forward this year resulting in 14,000 construction jobs over 25 years and 6,000 university positions, while revitalizing the neighboring West Harlem community.

The ESCD has said it won’t exercise its power to acquire seven residential buildings in the neighborhood while they are occupied, according to the decision.

In December, a lower appeals court ruled that government efforts to take land were illegal because the property wasn’t blighted and the development isn’t a civic project. The position that the area was “blighted,” justifying seizure, is “mere sophistry” and “idiocy,” the appellate panel said in its decision.

The lower court ruled the expansion wasn’t a “civic project” as Columbia is a private institution.

The Appellate Division erred “when it substituted its view” of whether the site was blighted for that of the state agency, the Court of Appeals ruled.

Manhattanville Section

The new development, in the Manhattanville section of West Harlem, is less than a mile from Columbia’s main campus in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights section. It will add about 6.8 million square feet to the university, including a new business school and science facilities.

The previous ruling hadn’t stopped Columbia from moving forward with preliminary design for its first building, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, which will focus on research of the human brain.

The science center is expected to open by 2015, according to the university.

In addition, Columbia will construct new homes for its school of International and Public Affairs and the School of the Arts.

Later phases, to be completed around 2030, will house graduate students and faculty and will emphasize interdisciplinary scholarship, including biomedical engineering, nanotechnology, systems biology, and urban and populations studies, the university said on its website.

Norman Siegel and Steven Hyman, attorneys for Tuck-It-Away, didn’t immediately return calls for comment.

David L. Smith, lawyer for Parminder Kaur and P.G. Singh Enterprises LLP, which own gas stations in the area, also didn’t immediately return a call for comment.

Abuse of Power

“Once again, New York’s courts have completely ignored the abuse of power by government bureaucrats and politically connected developers,” Dana Berliner, a senior attorney at the Arlington, Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which filed a brief with the court in favor of Harlem property owners, said in an e-mailed statement.

The case is In the Matter of Parminder Kaur v. New York State Urban Development Corporation / In the Matter of Tuck-It- Away Inc. v. New York State Urban Development Corporation, New York State Court of Appeals, No. 125 (Albany).

To contact the reporter on this story: Karen Freifeld in New York at kfreifeld@bloomberg.net.

Bloomberg reserves the right to edit or remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.