NY's Highest Court Upholds Columbia University Expansion Plan

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The state's highest court has unanimously rejected a lawsuit by two West Harlem businesses that challenged Columbia University's $6.3 billion expansion plan.

The university controls the overwhelming majority of the 17 acres where it wants to build a third campus, and has already begun digging sewage trenches and demolishing buildings. The Court of Appeals decision will allow the university to proceed more confidently while also putting to rest a decision from an appeals court that sided in favor of the property owners.

That decision found the declaration that the expansion zone was blighted was "mere sophistry" invented to justify that state's use of eminent domain. It ridiculed some of the criteria the state's consultants used to determine blight, such as torn awnings, and suggested the area had been experiencing a renaissance. But that decision was joined by just two of the panel's five judges, while a third judge concurred with a different justification.

Thursday's decision from the Court of Appeals said the lower court had ignored evidence that found disinvestment in the area reached back to the 1960s. The ruling also reaffirmed the principle central in last year's Atlantic Yards case, which found that the governor and his appointees should be given wide latitude in determining what is blighted, the first step in justifying seizure under eminent domain.

"Not only has this court, but the Supreme Court has consistently held that blight is an elastic concept that does not call for an inflexible, one-size-fits-all definition," Senior Associate Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick wrote in the majority opinion, which was joined by five other judges.

The court's seventh judge, Associate Judge Robert Smith, wrote a separate opinion in which he concurred, but reluctantly. Smith was also the lone dissenting vote on the Atlantic Yards decision.

"The finding of 'blight' in this case seems to me strained and pretextual," Smith wrote.

Professor Patricia Salkin of Albany Law School said the decision was not a surprise. She said the ruling was in keeping with years of precedent that grants the government wide latitude in eminent domain cases and corrects the mystifying opinion by the Appellate Division, First Department, in December.

"The order of the day here was the Court of Appeals here continuing the message that where there may be just a difference of opinion with respect to what is blighted, that they are going to rely on legislative deference and the court is not going to substitute its judgment,” she said.

The decision will doubtless upset many small businesses and advocates of private property who have been concerned ever since the 2005 Supreme Court decision, Kelo v. New London. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that states could seize private property and turn it over to private companies.

"It does raise the same kinds of question that the Kelo court had raised," Salkin said. "Is our definition clear about what is blight and what is substandard in New York?"

Columbia has said it needs more space in order to compete with other Ivy League universities and has long been squeezed by its New York City location. It plans to build 16 buildings for student and faculty housing, laboratories, classrooms and offices between 125th and 134th Streets, most of them between Broadway and 12th Avenue.

Dennis Mullen, the chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency that was sued by the property owners, says the university's expansion will benefit the public.

"I'm extremely excited about it. I think that project is transformational," Mullen told WNYC. "I do believe that Columbia will deliver everything that they've committed to the community and be able to create educational opportunities that are of the caliber that they expect."

Nick Sprayregen, the owner of a self-storage company that was one of the two plaintiffs, said he is considering taking the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"It means that entities such as Columbia or a developer can bring on their own blight into a neighborhood and then benefit from it," Sprayregen said. "It really has far-reaching consequences and none of it is positive."