At The Weekly Standard, Jonathan V. Last tells how Columbia University (my alma mater) and New York State are using eminent domain to bully a businessman into selling some property that Columbia covets. Like most universities, Columbia wants to keep growing endlessly, and with land in Manhattan as scarce as it is, that’s not so easy. In recent decades Columbia has tried to build a gym in nearby Morningside Park (students used this plan as a pretext for the 1968 riots) and considered setting up a second campus in Westchester. Now the university is eyeing a parcel northwest of its main campus, in the neighborhood called Manhattanville.
Nothing wrong with that. Along with the usual academic nonsense, lots of genuinely important research would be performed there, and the Lions basketball team could certainly use a new gym. But there’s a right way to expand and a wrong one, and instead of taking the path of cooperation, Columbia is using brute force to override the civil rights of neighborhood business owners.
The university says the area it’s after is “blighted,” and in fact it is fairly shabby. But under New York State’s eminent-domain laws, someone whose property is condemned has virtually no way to challenge the ruling — certainly not at a trial. The most active opponent of Columbia’s land grab, Nick Sprayregen, who runs a group of storage facilities in the area, employs several lawyers more or less full time filing motions for injunctions and delays to keep the case’s factual record from being slammed shut. In response, the state’s lawyers, working hand-in-glove with Columbia, virtually accuse Sprayregen of whacking Grandma over the head with a two-by-four: “The first building to be constructed . . . would be devoted to curing diseases, such as autism, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia . . . How does one place a price tag in human suffering on delaying a possible cure of any such diseases by 18 months, 12 months, or 6 months?”
But it gets worse. Sprayregen’s lawyers have shown that all the properties that are classified as “blighted” to justify use of eminent domain are owned by Columbia — which has consistently refused to improve them or rent to businesses that would spruce them up. Moreover, a map in the print version of the article (not on-line, unfortunately) shows that Columbia already owns about 90% of the non-public land in the area it wants — yet somehow, the lawyers claim, if the university is not allowed to seize the last few remaining gas stations and storage spaces, medical research will be sent back to the Dark Ages and “a virtual tsunami of Alzheimer’s patients” will be left to fend for themselves. Note that except for helping old folks toss their crutches away, Columbia carefully avoids specifying exactly what the space will be used for, because “it is impossible to know today all the new areas of learning and discovery that might arise decades into the future.”
So, to summarize: Columbia buys a bunch of property, intentionally lets it deteriorate, gets the neighborhood certified as “blighted,” and then uses eminent domain to condemn the few scattered bits that have escaped its clutches. When one individual is brave enough to resist these tactics, Columbia and New York state roll out the heavy legal artillery and start firing away. And for what? Not a highway or a water-treatment plant or any of the things that eminent domain was meant for; in fact, excepting (of course) vital medical research, the university won’t say how the space is going to be used. But you can be sure that it will be devoted to noble purposes — trust us, says Columbia. After all, who can doubt the sincerity of an institution that has shown itself to be so honest and public-spirited?