Friday, January 11, 2008

Pushing Back as Columbia Moves to Spread Out

Public Lives
Pushing Back as Columbia Moves to Spread Out
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Published: January 11, 2008

NICHOLAS SPRAYREGEN, the Upper Manhattan property owner who has dueled to a standoff with an acquisition-minded Columbia University in the real estate version of a “whoever has the most toys, wins” competition, knows better than to ask for a sympathy vote.

“Don’t feel sorry for me,” he says, crouched behind a desk in his windowless office at 3261 Broadway. Photographs of Bruce Springsteen, whom the lean and hirsute Mr. Sprayregen marginally resembles, dominate the decorating scheme. Don’t worry, Mr. Sprayregen, no pity for you.

This is true even before you mention that you have scored seventh-row seats to the Boss’s summer concert at Giants Stadium, sat next to Mr. Springsteen’s mom at one of his Seeger sessions gigs, and attended six shows during his 10-night stand at Madison Square Garden for “The Rising” tour. Do you really have to drag out that photograph of you and the Boss posing at a Bridgehampton ice cream shop, the shot used as a screen saver on all your electronic gadgets? Did you really name two of your companies, Rising Development Company and Rising Publications, in honor of Mr. Springsteen? Does the final line on your one-page résumé read: “Number one Bruce Springsteen fan in Harlem,” even though you and your wife, Jaynee, live on the Upper East Side? Yes, yes and yes.

“I am very obsessive in general, and I tend to do things to an extreme,” he admits. In him, this somehow manages to be an endearing quality.

Mr. Sprayregen, 44, is a multimillionaire thanks to Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage, the family business he took over in 1990. What was once a hulking orange-and-black brick building on an unattractive stretch of Broadway at 131st Street (it now bears a banner with the message “Stop Eminent Domain Abuse”) has morphed into five storage warehouses. It’s hard to work up a tear for a fellow who owns one million square feet of commercial properties in New York and New Jersey, has acquired 18 choice parcels in the heart of Yonkers, and last year diversified himself further by purchasing Westchester’s largest chain of weekly newspapers.

Hard to proffer condolences to a guy who drives, proudly, “a gas-guzzling Chevy Suburban,” an act of political incorrectness he attributes to being the father of four busy children from his first marriage. Conveniently, he has his own oversize parking spot in this hulking warehouse, the building that was the genesis of his family’s self-storage business in 1980 and that Columbia is now bent on bulldozing to make room for a complex designed by Renzo Piano.

GIRDED by the recent City Council-stamped rezoning of the Manhattanville neighborhood, and contingent upon the result of a blight study conducted by the Empire State Development Corporation, Columbia is poised to acquire four properties owned by Mr. Sprayregen that are in the path and plans of the university’s 17-acre expansion.

Mr. Sprayregen, a businessman so obsessed with fitness that he has raced and finished 20 marathons and so obsessive about gaining a pound that he has not weighed himself since college (no need to), is relishing the tangle with his Ivy League neighbor over the precious asset that constitutes, he says, “ the bread and butter for 15 members of my family.”

Columbia may covet his property, but surrender is not in his repertoire. He’s given up running marathons to devote himself to winning, or at least finishing, what will inevitably be a bruising and expensive legal marathon. (He estimates he will spend more than $2 million in court fees.)
“I’m a mere mortal and they’re an institution,” he says, “but when they started buying up this neighborhood three years ago, it bothered me, and now it infuriates me.” He is likely to stay mad for years.

“I would have never thought four years ago that I would get involved in a civil rights issue; I had never before considered myself as part of a minority that was being stamped upon.” He does now. “This is about the powerful growing more powerful at the expense of those who have less. Columbia is not a public university; what they’re doing by threatening to use eminent domain is as unethical from a business perspective as anything I’ve ever come across. Property rights abuse is running rampant, but what’s unique in this instance is that eminent domain always seems to be used against the down-and-out, people who can’t afford to fight back in a meaningful way. I can. But I think it’s anti-American that I’m probably on the losing side.”

Mr. Sprayregen, with help from the civil liberties lawyer Norman Siegel, vows to take Columbia all the way to the Supreme Court to prevent it from seizing his property.

Mr. Sprayregen, who grew up in New Rochelle and has an M.B.A. from New York University, actually applied to and was accepted by Columbia’s Graduate School of International Studies while working in management and acquisitions for a Chase Manhattan subsidiary from 1987 to 1989. He wound up running the family business instead.

“People like to say this is just about money, that Columbia is the future and me and my business are so yesterday, but this is about right and wrong. Why should Columbia get to take my property? And why, now that there has been a change of zoning, shouldn’t I be able to stay here side-by-side with Columbia and develop my own properties?”

So one way or another, Tuck-It-Away is history? Mr. Sprayregen nods. No tears here.
My Letter to the Editor:
To the Editor:

I have known Nick Spreyregen for several years, the article seems to unduly emphasize his wealth and admiration of Bruce Sprngsteen ,but not the dedication, tenacity, hard work and personal efforts that Nick put in creating that wealth for his family.

Nick is a true AMERICAN. Successful, yes! Wealthy, yes! Landowner, yes!

Why is there a certain implication that, beign a successful, wealthy landowner is wrong?

The principle for which he is standing is an important fundamental principle for which our country was founded. Freedom is never free and one of the fundaments of Freedom is the right of owning property, whether it is a co-op apartment, a house in the suburbs, a farm or ranch, that is AMERICAN.

Our Founding Fathers must be rolling in their graves to see how one of God-given Fundamental Rights is being trampled by local and state goverments in the name of development.

Columbia has a right to expand and own as much property as they need, true enough.
Columbia does not have the right to invoke eminent domain on properties it cannot buy.

All things considered Columbia is NOT a Public Benefits entity. In fact it is a Public Burden. It pays no property taxes, it receives Public Funds from the City and the State and even the Federal Government.

Columbia does a lot of good things for the community but that does not give CU the right to exert absolute sovereignity over our community.

Early during my tenure as Chairman of Manhattan Community Board 9 a resolution was passed opposing eminent domain for the benefit of private entities. The taking of private property by the government to give it another private owner was never the intent of the Founding Fathers when the "Takes" clause was inserted into the 5th Amendment. This practice, developed in the late 20th Century, is WRONG! And New York State Legislature should adress the abuses committed far too frequently in New York by State and Local Governments.

Nick's fight is not only his - it is the fight of all property owners regardless of how wealthy or not they are. Kudos Nick, Keep fighting many of us are with you.

J. Reyes-Montblanc
WestSide Harlem

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