By The Uptowner Staff
Note: this story was updated on Dec. 4, 2009.
Harlem was rocked by a state court decision today forbidding Columbia University’s use of eminent domain to obtain land for its planned $6.28 billion campus expansion. The ruling overturned last year’s decision green lighting the property takeover, which would transform 17 acres of warehouses into tree-lined promenades, high-rise dormitories and glass-walled science facilities.
“I personally was surprised because this was depicted as Goliath, being Empire State Development Corporation and Columbia, against David,” said Patricia Jones, chair of Community Board 9. “How often does David win?” Community Board 9 has been vocal in its opposition against Columbia’s expansion plans.
Columbia aimed to extend its campus into a section bordered roughly by Broadway, Riverside Drive, 129th and 133rd Streets, adding up to 6.8 million square feet of new facilities in 16 buildings. It has spent the past several years buying land in Upper Manhattan from dozens of property owners. A few are still holding their ground.
Jose McKinney, 46, lives in a building at 133rd and Broadway. He’s been there since 1999, and said he’s not against the expansion because some landlords can’t pay taxes or take care of their buildings and plan to leave anyway. “If you don’t take care of your neighborhood, someone will come in and take care of it for you,” McKinney said. However, he didn’t like the idea of evicting businesses that don’t want to leave.
Yoisha Salazar, 37, a manager at Floridita, a restaurant at 126th and Broadway in the swath of land Columbia wanted, was relieved by the news. “I’m happy because we’re not going to lose our jobs,” she said.
Ramon Diaz, Floridita’s owner, said, “What I think the Appellate Division did was make themselves look good, throw a bone at the little guy.” Diaz, who has only five years left before he pays off his mortgage, said he thinks a higher Court of Appeals will eventually overturn the decision.
“Columbia is not a party in this litigation and the ESDC has issued a statement of its intent to appeal this matter,” wrote Victoria Benitez, senior public affairs officer at Columbia.
December has been a fateful month for Columbia University in each of the past few years. On Dec. 20, 2007, the New York City Council voted to rezone the planned expansion area from light manufacturing to mixed use, clearing the way for Columbia to proceed with the project. And one week before Christmas last year, the state approved eminent domain. A resounding victory for the university, the declaration was met by instant retaliation from a few Manhattanville property owners’ lawyers.
Nick Sprayregen, who owns several properties in the area, has been battling Columbia’s uptown conquest for years. His business is one of the petitioners in the case against the university, and he has declared the issue a “crusade,” going as far as accusing the university and New York State of collusion. “I feel unbelievable,” Sprayregen told The New York Times today. A call from The Uptowner to Sprayregen was not immediately returned.
According to ESDC, the expansion project is financed entirely by Columbia. It would create 14,000 construction jobs and 6,000 university jobs. The court decision today is not catastrophic to construction plans. The university owns 61 buildings in the zone and can build around the 6 buildings it doesn’t own.
The planned Jerome L. Greene Science Center, for example, is on land Columbia already owns. “It will continue to move forward,” Benitez said.
Benitez said that site demolition and other pre-construction work has already been initiated. “This new academic building will focus on research that will unlock the mysteries of the human brain and lead to cures for neurodegenerative diseases,” she explained.
An owner of a nearby gas station was “practically in tears” as he rushed over to tell Diaz the news of the decision, Diaz said. “It’s been a very long process,” he said, “and people are tired.” Meetings that used to bring in 150 people now bring 40 or 50 people. More and more people have moved out or been evicted, but Diaz says he still has faith.
Reporting contributed by Sarah Butrymowicz, Cecile Dehesdin, Andrew Keshner, Tim Kiladze, Nate Rawlings, Shane Snow, Joshua Tapper and Lisa Waananen