Friday, December 4, 2009

Little Guy Beats Ivy League Land Grab

For once, we have good news on eminent domain from the Empire State:

A state court ruled on Thursday that the state could not use eminent domain on behalf of Columbia University to obtain parts of a 17-acre site in West Harlem, dealing a major blow to the university’s plans to build a $6.3 billion satellite campus.

Nicholas Sprayregen, owner of a self-storage company who fought the taking, knew the odds were against him as he took on the prestigious university and the state of New York. He is understandably pleased with the decision:

“I feel unbelievable,” Mr. Sprayregen said following Thursday’s decision. “I was always cautiously optimistic. But I was aware we were going against 50 years of unfair cases against property owners.”He and the gas station owners challenged the state’s finding that the neighborhood was blighted and its decision to condemn property in the project area on behalf of the university.

One wonders how successful businesses magically become “blighted” when high profile people or entities utter the words “new development.” So what now?

The court’s decision is not fatal to its expansion plan. It already owns or controls 91 percent of the 17-acres–61 of 67 buildings–in the project area. It can simply build around the other property owners, or come to some sort of agreement. But the state and the university had always sought the entire site. 

It bought most of the land between 125th Street and 133rd Street, between Broadway and Riverside Drive. But the university failed to work out a deal with Nicholas Sprayregen, who owned four Tuck-it-Away Self Storage buildings in the area, and the owners of two gas stations. At one point, Mr. Sprayregan offered to swap his properties for other land owned by Columbia nearby, but Columbia refused to do a deal. He said the state never came to him asking to work out a solution. (Emphasis added)

While the blogpost is unquestionably fair to Mr. Sprayregan and his fight, I couldn’t help but notice the language in the headline of the story: “Court Deals Blow to Columbia University.” Maybe it’s just my partiality to underdogs, but I think the hook of the story is that the little guy won against heavy odds fighting a privileged and powerful bully and the State of New York, not the misfortune of the poor little rich school with the seven billion dollar endowment.

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