Harlem Area Is Blighted, State Agency Declares
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS
Published: July 18, 2008
The Empire State Development Corporation declared a 17-acre area of Harlem blighted on Thursday, a step toward forcing property owners to sell their land as part of eminent domain proceedings to make way for the expansion of Columbia University.
The long-awaited finding — that a slice of the west part of Harlem known as Manhattanville is full of deteriorating buildings — was part of the state development agency’s preliminary approval of the university’s $6.28 billion expansion plan.
The plan, which the agency is expected to formally approve in the fall, has been opposed by some Harlem residents, who fear being displaced by the university.
The expansion, which is to take place over 25 years, will transform a section of Upper Manhattan dominated by warehouses and auto-body shops into a campus with high-rise classrooms and laboratories, tree-lined streets and student housing.
All but a handful of the expansion zone’s existing buildings will be torn down to make room for the new campus, which Columbia officials have said will eventually include many of the university’s science and research facilities.
Columbia says it is short of space. On Thursday, Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia’s president, lauded the agency’s move.
“We are gratified by the Empire State Development Corporation’s adoption of a general project plan as the next step for a civic project that has moved forward with widespread support from local officials, elected representatives and a wide coalition of public interest groups committed to sustainable growth and vibrant urban neighborhoods,” President Bollinger said in a statement.
Much of the opposition to the expansion plan has been centered on Columbia’s refusal to pledge that it would not seek to have the state take over the privately owned land that the university has been unable to purchase.
Mr. Bollinger has promised not to ask the state to invoke eminent domain for the area’s residential buildings, which are home to about 300 people, but he has refused to make similar promises regarding the few commercial properties that have not been purchased by the university.
On Thursday, Columbia released its most direct statement to date about its intention to pursue eminent domain: “The university has requested that the E.S.D.C. consider exercising its eminent domain authority in order to ensure that commercial development in this old industrial area does not prevent the city and state from achieving the public interest goals in the proposed academic expansion, with all of the long-term economic, educational and civic benefits it will bring to the local economy and all New Yorkers.”
The university has said it owns about 90 percent of the private property in the area bounded roughly by Broadway on the east, Riverside Drive on the west, 133rd Street on the north and 129th Street on the south.
Two commercial property owners, however, have refused to sell. One of them is Nicholas Sprayregen, who owns four buildings in the expansion zone as part of his Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage moving and storage business.
Mr. Sprayregen has been vocal in his opposition to eminent domain and has vowed to fight the university to the Supreme Court if necessary. For months, his buildings have displayed giant banners that read “Stop Eminent Domain Abuse!”
On Thursday, Mr. Sprayregen, 44, vowed to continue fighting.
“It is clear that the voices of the community have been unsuccessful in dissuading Columbia University or the state from voluntarily backing off the threat of eminent domain,” he said. “We will go full steam ahead in preparing our defense.”
But on Thursday, many city and state lawmakers were aligned against Mr. Sprayregen.
Along with the press release announcing the development agency’s approval of the expansion plan were statements of approval from Gov. David A. Paterson, Representative Charles B. Rangel, Deputy Mayor Robert C. Lieber and state Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright.
The project has been approved by the City Council and is supported by the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer.
On Thursday, the state development agency said that two separate studies had determined that the part of Harlem under consideration was “mainly characterized by aging, poorly maintained and functionally obsolete industrial buildings, with little indication of recent reinvestment to revive their generally deteriorated conditions.”
Opponents of the expansion, however, have said for months that the study’s findings were a foregone conclusion because the consulting firm that performed the blight analysis on behalf of the state — Allee King Rosen & Fleming Inc. — had previously conducted Columbia University’s environmental impact study for the expansion.
On Thursday, the state agency said that the consulting firm’s analysis had been audited by a second firm, Earth Tech Inc.
This week, a state appellate court upheld a decision ordering the development corporation to release documents regarding the expansion of Columbia University to Mr. Sprayregen because of the conflict of interest.
A public hearing on the project will probably be held in September, said Warner Johnston, an agency spokesman. A final vote will come after the hearing.
After that, businesses facing the possibility of eminent domain would have 30 days to present their arguments, officials said.
Columbia said on Thursday that it was willing to restart negotiations with the holdout businesses before eminent domain proceedings began.
“The university remains committed to reaching mutually beneficial agreements with the two remaining commercial property owners on these blocks,” Columbia said in a statement.