Nicholas Sprayregan began his fight to save Tuck-It-Away Self Storage from annexation by New York’s Columbia University in 2004, but the battle may now be drawing to a close. Last week Columbia received a green light from New York’s highest court to go ahead with its eminent domain expansion, taking over private properties in a Harlem neighborhood that the government has designated as a blight on the city. Columbia’s team of lawyers had argued that because the West Harlem neighborhood was considered blighted, ruling in the university’s favor would mean upholding the precedent set in 2009, when the court approved the use of eminent domain in Brooklyn. In that case, attorneys argued that the rights of property owners did not outweigh the community’s right to improve the neighborhood by building the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project.
Columbia originally tried to buy four self storage properties from Sprayregan, who refused. Then the university tried to use the power of eminent domain, through which a public institution can force a private property owner to sell property so that the space occupied by the property can be used for the good of the public. Columbia wants to use the property to expand the university campus. Sprayregan filed suit against the university, lost his case in November 2009 in New York’s Court of Appeals, and then won his case in the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan. At the time, though, many New York lawyers predicted that Sprayregan’s victory would be overturned — and now it has been. New York’s highest court overturned that ruling, deciding unanimously that Columbia’s project does qualify as an annexation under the power of eminent domain, according to state law.
The Tuck-It-Away Self Storage sites, which are near the Hudson River, have been earmarked by Columbia to be torn down so that the university can build 16 new buildings for science, business, and the arts.
While he was not surprised, New York lawyer Michael Rikon, who specializes in condemnation law, commented in last Thursday’s New York Times that “It is virtually impossible to stop a condemnation in New York because of the court’s deference to agencies’ determination…..Even though the courts say they won’t be a rubber stamp, that’s exactly what they’ve become.”
Tuck-It-Away’s owner, Nicholas Sprayregan, said in the same article that he would not give up his fight yet. “If not overturned, the ruling now will allow any private school to be the beneficiary of eminent domain to take their neighbor’s property,” Sprayregan explained. “Further, it telegraphs to every large developer that they merely need to purchase a majority of land in an area and then intentionally allow their property to worsen in physical condition, which could then trigger a blight designation which would allow them to forcibly take adjacent property.” The court’s decision last week was based in part on Columbia’s argument that it would be renewing a part of the city which had become blighted.
In another statement, this one emailed to Bloomberg Businessweek and printed last Thursday, Sprayregan commented that “It is truly a sad day for anyone who cares about the sanctity of private property rights.” He said he was considering taking the case even further, to the United States Supreme Court.