Will Columbia Take Manhattanville?

Balancing an Ivy League university's expansion plan with a Harlem neighborhood's needs is a tricky business, especially when eminent domain is in the mix.

Eminent Domain

More than anything else, it is Columbia’s insistence that it control the whole site, and the threat of eminent domain that hangs over the remaining properties that Columbia does not own, that is galvanizing and uniting opposition to Columbia’s plans. While few flatly oppose the idea of Columbia expanding, the general consensus (among residents, planners, business owners, and the community board) questions whether allowing the university to expand exactly when, how, and wherever it wants to constitutes enough of a public benefit to justify invoking eminent domain.

The flavor of public good that Lee Bollinger, the university’s president, has in mind as justifying eminent domain is quite general and benefits humankind as a whole. For example, their new neurosciences lab might find the cure for Alzheimer’s disease. A laudable goal surely. But does that mean that business owners who want to keep their buildings and pass their businesses on to their children are being extortionists standing in the way of the greater good, as the university has claimed?

Doublespeak?

Academic institutions are strongly rooted to place, and Columbia is no exception. Its New York location and historic campuses are a major attraction in recruiting students and faculty. In fact, the president’s letterhead reads “Columbia University. In the City of New York.” The idea that the university might leave the city is nearly absurd. Yet in the expansion’s environmental impact statement introduction, after a description of how the university is the 11th largest nongovernmental employer in the city, is this interesting assertion: “Columbia has stated a strong commitment to remain in New York City.” In an era when employers routinely threaten to relocate in order to obtain public resources, it’s easy to see a mention of “commitment to remain” as a way to make the city feel it “owes” Columbia something for this commitment.

So while Columbia focuses on the big-picture effects its expansion could have on the city or the world at large, the effects of its plans on the neighborhood level are already being felt. The university currently owns as much as 90 percent of the expansion footprint, where it has been stockpiling property, and, some allege, intentionally emptying buildings. Empty buildings create area blight, which is a necessary step toward the state taking the property through eminent domain.

Ann Whitman, owner of an art transportation business located in a historic property in the footprint, told The Next American City that the university’s negotiating tactics began with a “Deal with us now, or deal with the state later,” approach. She later received a letter on Columbia letterhead telling her that her property was “eligible for eminent domain.” The scare tactics were effective. The community’s 197a plan points out that area manufacturing employment had been steadily increasing from 1991 to 2000, adding 403 jobs, but dropped steeply once Columbia started buying up property, shedding 372 jobs from 2000 to 2002.

Irwin Cantor, the planning commissioner who abstained from the vote on Columbia’s proposal, noted that it was particularly galling that Columbia’s plan explicitly says that eminent domain won’t be sought for properties in the second phase of development (15 years away) until needed. This leaves owners responsible for the buildings, but effectively unable to improve or sell them (except to Columbia) as a result of the threat of eminent domain hanging over them. There’s a vanishingly small chance that these owners would be able to get financing to improve their property; and in the unlikely event that there was a buyer, that buyer would also not be able to get financing. Only three property owners in the footprint of Columbia’s expansion have not sold to the university to date. No one knows how many of those who have sold felt pressured to sell by the threat of eminent domain.

This is, in fact, one of the insidious aspects of eminent domain. Just raising the possibility of its use has immediate effects, almost always to the benefit of the entity wishing to acquire property. And those benefits are not evenly distributed. Eminent domain is most often used in the name of economic development or large-scale redevelopment, which primarily benefits already powerful entities. Smaller, more incremental community-based efforts are less likely to need to assemble such huge tracts of land.


One quiet reminder of this is the fact that media accounts and activists have been regularly referring to Columbia “using” or “agreeing not to use” eminent domain. In fact, Columbia has no ability to use the power and can only ask the state to act on its behalf. For example, Newsday wrote on Dec. 6, 2007, “Although the university has acquired most of the properties in the project’s footprint, it hasn’t ruled out using eminent domain to acquire the rest.” And on Dec. 13, The Daily News quoted the testimony of Robert Kasdin, Columbia’s senior executive vice president, at a city council hearing: “Under no condition will Columbia University use eminent domain against any residential properties.” The Daily News did not clarify the fact that Columbia cannot “use” eminent domain.

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Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.

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