Columbia University Wants to Sweep Away Local Businesses

Columbia University’s mission statement claims to “recognize the importance of its location in New York City and seeks to link its research and teaching to the vast resources of a great metropolis.”[1]  Apparently, those resources do not include Columbia’s own neighbors in West Harlem, as the private school seeks to push longtime owners from this increasingly desirable section of Manhattan.

Nicholas Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-It-Away Storage, knows the hypocrisy of Columbia all too well.[2]  He has felt the wrath full-throttle, and like many small business owners across America, he is willing to fight back.


“I am prepared to take this all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to,” said Nicholas Sprayregen.


Columbia University, a private university, has decided to expand its ever-growing campus in West Harlem, proposing an 18-acre development area that would include an art center, a biotech research center, student housing and a park.[3]

Sprayregen, a second-generation owner of the self-storage business that was started by his father in 1980, is the largest owner of the properties within the area slated for redevelopment and stands to lose it all if Columbia proceeds as planned.

“Columbia says it will help the community by putting in a new research center, but I already service the community,” said Sprayregen.  “There are over 2,500 West Harlem residents who do business with me here, and my properties include supermarkets, a hair salon and a parking garage, in addition to the storage units.”

If forced to move through eminent domain, Sprayregen fears that, like many small businesses, finding new clientele in a new and different place will put him back at square one.  As he points out, “storage clients don’t pick up and move with you.”

Columbia is acting like many private developers across America, unconcerned with the fact that these new buildings will push out countless residents and small business owners in the name of supposed “progress.”

Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, has responded unequivocally to the opposition of the development by saying: “Everyone is pleased with the way we have dealt with [the neighborhood].  I would be irresponsible as president of Columbia to give up eminent domain.” [4]

The president of Columbia thinks the only way to be a truly responsible leader of a prestigious, Ivy League university is to push people out of the property they rightfully own.  It’s an alarming message to send to the young minds of the school.

Luckily, the residents and business owners of West Harlem have their own leader in Nicholas Sprayregen.  He has joined together with some of his business neighbors and hired an attorney.  In addition, Sprayregen has led the fight in winning in the court of public opinion—an essential tool in winning any eminent domain battle.  He has written letters and op-eds to New York newspapers and has appeared countless times on television and the radio.

His message?  His property, and that of the neighbors who join him, is not for sale under the government’s threat of eminent domain.  Still, he says, dealing with Columbia is, “like looking at the horses in Central Park with the blinders on—all they know how to do is move forward—regardless of who is run over.”

Sprayregen reports that throughout the struggle to hang on to his property and businesses, Columbia has “lied to the community and has not been forthcoming.”  Specifically, direct and honest communication between the university and the property owners has all but stopped, leaving Sprayregen and his allies dependent upon expensive and time-consuming Freedom of Information Law requests as well as local news media, including Columbia’s own student newspaper, The Spectator.

Although no formal condemnation has yet been filed against the remaining properties, the very threat of eminent domain, used by the university’s own president,[5] is enough for Sprayregen and his neighbors to continue their fight, steadfast as ever.  Even his teenage daughter, Emily, has joined her dad as a proud member of the family business—and says she’s not going anywhere, either.

“I am prepared to take this all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to,” said Nicholas Sprayregen.

New Yorkers, like most Americans, take pride in the businesses that they own and all the hard work they have put into them to make them flourish and serve their communities.   Columbia, whose alumni include Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt, was once a prime example of true American greatness.  Now, Columbia University is turning a blind eye to private property rights—the foundation of all our rights, which their alumni knew well.

Luckily for Sprayregen and the rest of the activists and owners in West Harlem, Columbia still has ample chance to do the right thing—something few developers will try but true leaders will do.

[1] Columbia University Website, About Section:   “Mission Statement.”

[2] Note:  All quotations from this article are from a personal interview with Nicholas Sprayregen, conducted by Melanie Harmon on January 5, 2007.

[3] 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 same streets?”  City Limits, December 2004.

[4] Timothy Williams, “Land dispute pits Columbia vs. residents in West Harlem,” New York Times, November 20, 2006.  (emphasis added)

[5] Ibid.