Once in a while in the big bad city, the little guy wins.
Last Friday, an appeals court blocked New York State from seizing private property in order to further the planned $6.3 billion expansion of Columbia University. The 3-2 ruling by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Manhattan backed charges against the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), saying that by allowing the use of eminent domain, ESDC was giving the Ivy League school an unfair advantage over commercial property owners of the land.
The court said the ESDC’s conclusion in a study that said the neighborhood in Harlem was underused and “blighted” didn’t contain many facts to support the cause. The court also stated that the Empire State Development Corp. consistently hindered proceedings to prevent property owners from properly stating their case in court.
Using choice words like “idiocy” and “scheme,” the court described how the ESDC went about declaring the land blighted and ripe for eminent domain as a sophisticated hoodwink. A private university does not constitute facilities for a “civic project,” wrote Justice James M. Catterson in the decision. Catterson stated that the actions of the ESDC breached the U.S. Constitution’s limits on government’s power to take land for public projects.
As those in Willets Point, Queens, are fighting to prevent the use of eminent domain from ruining their businesses (thereby opening up the land near Citi Field for redevelopment) and Brooklyn residents continue to fight the Atlantic Yards project, they might look toward this ruling with some semblance of hope, even though the same court ruled in favor of the Atlantic Yards construction recently.
Despite the glimmer of hope provided by this most recent ruling, Norman Siegel, attorney for property owner Nicholas Sprayregen, knows that the university is slated to appeal to the highest court in the state, the Court of Appeals. Many people know that the fight isn’t over, and everyone is holding their breath.
Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s president, told the Columbia Spectator (the student paper) that the ruling won’t “hold us back.”
In an e-mailed statement, ESDC expressed its disappointment with the court’s decision. “The Empire State Development Corporation believes the decision of the Appellate Division, First Department, in the matter of the Columbia University Manhattanville Campus to be wrong and inconsistent with established law as consistently articulated by the New York State Court of Appeals, most recently with respect to ESDC’s Atlantic Yards project,” read the statement. “ESDC continues to fully support this project. The expansion of one of New York’s oldest educational institutions will enhance the vitality of both the university and its neighboring West Harlem community, while meeting the long-term needs of its residents.”
“ESDC intends to appeal this decision,” the statement concluded.
Columbia’s expansion would add 17 acres in to the 56-acre campus in the “Manhattanville” neighborhood. According the university’s website, plans for the expansion required the university to control the entire plot of land. Columbia already owns or has an option to purchase 90 percent of the land needed for expansion. The project, according to the school’s site, would be completed in 25 years. Construction of the first building in the expansion process, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, can continue because Columbia owns the property and it doesn’t intrude on any other owner’s property.
Third-term Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Council have come out in support of Columbia’s expansion over the past year or so. But the court thwarting part of the process is seen by some as a symbol of hope for the unheard masses in this city who have been knocked down by the recession.
“[It’s a] major win for private property owners and community activists,” declared Siegel.
Columbia claims the expansion would generate new jobs. Some claim that the decision will stunt the economic growth that the state and city desperately need. But the real questions should be: “Who will receive these jobs?” and “Who will benefit the most from economic growth?”