Bring Out the Wrecking Ball, Columbia Says

It was at King’s College, now Columbia University, that many of America’s most influential founding fathers were in some way influenced to fight for the liberties enshrined in the Constitution. But it appears things have changed.

In April 2004, the private, ivy league university nestled in the heart of New York City announced its plans to expand into West Harlem—a five billion dollar, five-square-block project to build a research facility, university housing and an art center, among other things. Only one problem: neither the university nor the City owns the land on which Columbia plans to build. But Columbia administrators say the university will simply use eminent domain to clear out the many existing businesses and apartment buildings that currently occupy the area.[1]

Defying the legacies of John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, Columbia University is quietly and shamelessly pushing through its plans to use eminent domain for its private gain—and it is doing so at the expense of some of the community’s hardest-working people.

Take Lawrence Greenberg, for example. He is the president of Pearlgreen Corporation, which has pumped millions of dollars into its property. The organization has weathered East Harlem’s good times and bad, and Greenberg has no desire whatsoever to leave so Columbia can destroy the industrial supply company founded by his grandparents more than 70 years ago.

He said, “We were here when there was nothing. Now, when things are finally getting better, we want to stay and be part of it.”[2]

Anne Whitman shares Greenberg’s sentiments. She owns Hudson North American Moving and Storage Company, which she learned Columbia intends to seize and bulldoze despite her telling university officials that she has no interest in selling.

“This little area of Manhattanville is a collection of immigrant families who started their businesses and are now in their third generation—it’s a beautiful thing, and Columbia wants to wipe it out.”[3]

Meanwhile, a university that ostensibly prides itself on the spread of ideas and the free flow of information has done everything possible to move forward with eminent domain abuse behind the scenes. In April 2005, university officials asked the Empire State Development Corporation, the State’s official redevelopment agency, to use eminent domain to acquire the land for Columbia’s expansion; the university offered to cover all costs of condemnation including any lawsuits that could arise.[4] Interestingly, the university’s exceptional journalism program brought this to the public’s attention—after the Columbia Daily Spectator filed a Freedom of Information Act request to acquire this information.

State law requires that there be a finding of “blight” before the university and the City can move forward with condemnations. Threats of eminent domain continue to shadow over hardworking Americans who want nothing more than to keep the land they already rightfully own—nothing more than to stop the City from using force to destroy their livelihoods just so it can benefit the politically connected private university. Meanwhile, the university has continued to navigate the City’s planning and zoning bureaucracy, hoping to raze a neighborhood that would happily coexist with Columbia.

Let’s hope Columbia changes course and walks in the footsteps of its earliest students—people who not only fought for the Constitution, but drafted it, signed it and defended it on the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court. While Columbia continues its attempts to bully hardworking Americans, local activists will not back down until the City and the university drop threats of eminent domain for private profit.

[1] Bob Roberts, “Open university; Columbia plans to expand to West Harlem; West Harlem wants to be part of the plan; Is there a way for campus and community to share the streets,” City Limits, December 2004.

[2] Bob Roberts, “Masters of their domain,” City Limits, September 27, 2004.

[3] Andrew Marks, “Six firms that won’t sell out to Columbia; Convenience, history key factors in wanting to stay in West Harlem,” Crain’s New York Business, January 17, 2005.

[4] Jacob Gershman, “Columbia expansion plans step on neighborhood toes,” New York Sun, April 21, 2005.