Phi Beta Cons

Re: Columbia’s War on Property Rights

I have lived in Morningside Heights since I came to Columbia as a freshman 30 years ago, and I have to agree with the WSJ column that John J. Miller cites about Columbia’s arrogant use of eminent domain. First of all, as the column’s author, Nick Sprayregen, points out, Manhattanville is by no means “blighted.” Anyone who thinks so probably hasn’t been there since the 1970s. Today it is on the rise, due in part to an influx of Columbia people forced out of buildings closer to campus by the university’s relentless expansion. One example: A few years back, a group of friends and I decided to go to a restaurant on 131st Street that we’d heard about. We got there around 10 on a Saturday night and found it packed with boisterous young folks (by which I mean under-40s). We were told to expect a two-hour wait.

The whole eminent-domain mentality, I think, can be traced back to the notion that property owners and businessmen are inherently evil. For a contrast, consider what happens in New York when a building owner wants to convert his building from rental to co-op. In most cases (see here for a recent example), the tenants have to be bought out, and if they don’t accept the landlord’s offer, he can’t force them to leave. Remember, these are renters, many of whom have enjoyed below-market rents for decades. Yet in a case like Manhattanville, if the city decides it likes university buildings better than auto-body shops and warehouses, local property owners have far fewer rights than renters do in a co-op conversion.
Look, I agree that on the whole, Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville will be good for the entire area. The university’s libraries are overflowing, faculty housing is way too scarce, and it needs laboratory space for important scientific research — but most important of all, Columbia has the worst basketball gym in the Ivy League, and when they build their new one, they will be able to recruit a better class of players. Still, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do these things, and Columbia’s bullying act is definitely the wrong way.* I could understand (perhaps) the use of eminent domain if City College of New York, whose campus is just north of the area in question, wanted to expand. But Columbia is a private university with a $7 billion endowment, and if it wants to take over a business owner’s property, it can negotiate with him and work out a price, just as the little people have to do.
* I would threaten to withhold my contributions if I hadn’t already stopped giving money to Columbia years ago, and don’t get me started on that. This doesn’t keep me from rooting for their sports teams, of course; I assume John doesn’t agree with everything the University of Michigan does, but that doesn’t keep him from rooting for the Wolverines.

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