The Empire State Development Corporation held its first meeting on Columbia’s plans to expand into Manhattanville. Two property owners, Nick Sprayregen and the Singh family, are fighting valiantly to keep their property as the ESDC decides if and when to use eminent domain to forcibly remove them from their businesses.
The daughter of the gas station owner threatened by the project got up and was one of the first speakers, according to The Observer:
“If Columbia has to take [our property] away using eminent domain, I am sad to say, our future is looking very grim,” the Singh daughter told the audience at City College. “I think it is very unfair, unjust and racist. Columbia is a multi-million-dollar private company… Can they not spare two properties that mean so much to us? Columbia just wants to take advantage of the fact that we are Indian people trying to live the American dream.”
Many local activists showed up at the meeting to protest Columbia’s actions. Even the area’s state assemblyman denounced the potential use of eminent domain as “legally permissible but morally repugnant.”
However, university supporters attended as well, with Columbia President Lee Bollinger not making much sense when he said the project is necessary for the university but didn’t want “in any way to be at odds with” neighboring New Yorkers. Even without eminent domain, the university would still be very much at odds with its neighbors on this project.
The other property owner threatened by the private university, Nick Sprayregen laid out his case in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:
Only a few years ago, this area was undergoing a resurgence. Virtually all property was occupied, many by long-standing family operations such as my own. Now most of those businesses are gone — forced out by the university. Still, Columbia has not been able to freeze all positive change in the neighborhood. Just in the past few years, three upscale restaurants have opened here. They seem to be thriving.
When I go to court in a few months to contest the condemnation, I will face an overwhelmingly unfair process particular to New York, and to eminent domain trials. I will not be permitted to question any of the state or Columbia’s representatives, nor will I be allowed to have anyone take the witness stand on my behalf. My attorney will only be provided with 15 minutes to speak to the court on a matter that Columbia and the state have been working on for over four years.
Another problem is that in New York, the precise definition of what is blighted is nowhere to be found. It is virtually impossible to defend oneself from something that is not properly defined.
What Sprayregen describes is only part of what makes New York one of the worst abusers of eminent domain in the nation, and Sprayregen hopes to affect some kind of change in the state. Nevertheless, it may difficult, considering the mindset of New York lawmakers and university officials toward property owners and property rights.