Top State Court OKs Columbia Expansion

The New York Court of Appeals on June 24 approved the state’s use of eminent domain to acquire property for Columbia University’s expansion project in West Harlem, overturning the Appellate Division’s ruling that its use was unconstitutional.

All seven judges in the state’s top court found sufficient basis for the state agency’s finding of “blight” in the area—one condition by which the state can invoke its powers to seize private property—and rejected claims by property owners that the public review process had been rigged. They also rejected claims that the property owners’ due-process rights had been denied because the state withheld documents they had sought through Freedom of Information Law requests during the review process, including one from an agency employee saying that the state would “manufacture support for condemnation.”

New York courts have typically given extensive deference to determinations made by state agencies. The conditions under which eminent domain can be invoked are particularly broad and malleable here, according to the Institute for Justice, a national property rights organization which claimed in a 2009 report entitled “Building Empires, Destroying Homes” that “New York is perhaps the worst state in the nation when it comes to eminent domain abuse.”

A majority of the judges accepted that facilities for Columbia University qualified the development as a “civic project,” another criterion by which the state can use eminent domain. State law defines “civic use” as “facilities for educational, cultural, recreational, community, municipal, public service or other civic purposes.” This is the first case in which New York courts have been asked to rule whether private educational institution qualifies under the statute.

Judge Robert S. Smith considered the majority’s acceptance of a broad interpretation of the statute “unnecessary.” He wrote that the issue was discussed “in a vacuum, as though there were no possible constitutional limitation on the breadth of that term.”

The majority opinion stated that Columbia’s expansion is “at least as compelling in its civic dimension” as building a basketball arena for the Nets in downtown Brooklyn as part of the Atlantic Yards project—a development that also relied on the use of eminent domain and withstood legal challenges on grounds similar to those used in the Columbia case. Judge Smith found the expansive interpretation dangerous, asking “would anyone seriously suggest, for example, that private tennis camps or karate schools (“educational” uses), or private casinos or adult video stores (“recreational” uses), qualify as “public” uses in the constitutional sense?”

In late spring, Columbia University began demolishing buildings it owns in the project area on a block bounded by 129th and 130th streets, between Broadway and 12th Avenue. The block includes sites owned by the two property owners who still refuse to sell to the university. One, Nick Sprayregen, who has four buildings in the project site that Columbia covets, vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Few people who seek redress at the nation’s top court have their cases taken, but there is speculation that the current high court wants to revisit its 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which upheld the use of eminent domain for private economic-development projects. In the 5-4 decision, it was the conservative justices on the court who dissented, seeking stricter limitations on state powers. With the appointments of Samuel Alito and new Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court has become decidedly more sympathetic to corporations; it may also have become more sympathetic to individual property rights.

Columbia’s proposal entails building 6.8 million square feet of new facilities in 16 new high-rise buildings in West Harlem over the next 25 years, during which the university expects thousands of people in the surrounding area would be displaced by rapidly rising rents. Since the plan was first announced in 2003, it has faced strong opposition from within the community.