Thursday, April 24, 2008

An Open Letter to President Bollinger

An Open Letter to President Bollinger
By Nick Spraygreen

Dear President Bollinger,

With the recent appointment of a new governor, there is renewed hope among many that the state will finally take strides in amending its abusive eminent domain laws. As such, I publish this open letter with the sincere hope that it will lead to meaningful dialogue between you and me. Over the past nearly four years, the institution that you head, Columbia University, and the family business of which I am president, Tuck-It-Away Self Storage, have been locked in battle. The outcome of this struggle will affect the future direction of many parties—my family, Columbia, and West Harlem. The stakes are huge.

The issue: the threatened use of eminent domain. You have asked the state to condemn any properties in the Manhattanville area of West Harlem that refuse to sell to you. Out of regard for my family, which has owned and operated four commercial properties here for almost 30 years, my answer has always been the same: I will not negotiate while the threat of eminent domain is hung over my head. That is not fair.

During this fight, you and I have never directly communicated, despite my request for a meeting with you. This request was turned down. Instead, it has only been through surrogates—lawyers, lobbyists, and journalists—that we have had any form of contact.

I am adamant in my opposition to the possible use of eminent domain so that Columbia can take others’ private property to help it build a new campus. This is not how eminent domain should be used. Columbia is a private institution of privilege—it is not a fire station, highway or, indeed, a public school.

If and when New York state (through an unelected public authority, the Empire State Development Corporation) commences formal condemnation proceedings against my family, I will fight back with all my ability. To help assist me, I have at my side the noted civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, a man who has taught me the difference between right and wrong, and how one needs to stand resolutely for the former against the latter.

Should I lose the battle to retain my properties, the state will take them against my will and hand them over to you. I will be paid a sum that either will be negotiated between the parties or, should no agreement on value be accomplished, will be decided by the courts. In all likelihood, the latter will occur, thus ensuring yet another drawn-out legal battle.

I feel that, in both cases—the actual condemnation as well as, should it be allowed to occur, the valuation—the United States Supreme Court could be ready to intervene. Since the controversial 5-4 decision Kelo v. City of New London in 2005, this country has come face to face with the hidden ugliness of eminent domain abuse. Fortunately, the extent of this abuse is no longer below the radar. In fact, perhaps on more than any other issue, national polls reveal virtual unanimity across party lines that eminent domain reform is needed. As of the end of 2007, 42 states have made changes to their eminent domain laws. In every single case, the result was greater protection of private property.

On the main issue—that of ownership of my properties—it just may be that I can prevail. I would then be able to operate and develop my properties alongside the campus you will still undoubtedly build, despite your insistence to the press that Columbia must have everything in order to go forward. A clear message will be sent to large institutions and corporations that the police power of our government is no longer available to the highest bidder, that one cannot merely lease these powers to evade and avoid the marketplace, and that “might is not right.”

So what will the courts decide? How long will it take? Needless to say, no one can know for sure. However, there is an alternative. If utilized, it would significantly reduce—if not eliminate altogether—the downside risks to all involved in a court battle. All that it requires is compromise. As I have already presented to state officials, as well as a senior officer in your administration, we could easily swap a few properties in Manhattanville, and thereby possibly negate the need for eminent domain while at the same time still give the University its much-desired contiguous campus. And there are even other ways to avoid the ugliness of eminent domain—they revolve around partnership. For instance, we can jointly own and build some of the new structures where my properties now stand (including student housing, something that is already in your plans). We can also discuss possible long-term leases—99 years, for instance.

President Bollinger, all that is needed is the courage to agree to meet with me and the wisdom to keep an open mind. Certainly it would be no more uncomfortable than your meeting last year with the Iranian president. If you do agree and a lasting compromise is forged, there may be no better lesson to teach your students, nor any stronger legacy to leave for future generations. I look forward to your taking my call.

Nick Spraygreen

The author is president of Tuck-It-Away, a regional self storage provider. He is also managing member of Rising Development Co., a real estate owner and developer, and the publisher of Rising Publications, a Westchester County community newspaper chain.

TAGS: Eminent Domain, Manhattanville
View Comments ( 2)Post a Comment

In reference to the comments posted below by "alum", (made virtually as soon as - if not prepared before-hand - this column was even posted on-line), I state the following:
Alum takes issue with my statement about what Columbia has asked the state to do. I hereby quote directly from a "secret" agreement (that only saw the light of day due to a FOIL request) dated July 30, 2004. This agreement was signed by both Columbia and the state and is on Columbia letterhead. It states in part, "Columbia has requested that the New York State Urban Development Corporation...consider the condemnnation of portions of the Property not under Columbia Control and the transfer of facilitate development by Columbia".

Alum's second paragraph is his opinion only.

Alum's third and fourth paragraphs have nothing to do with eminent domain - the subject of my column - so they are irrelevant to any discussion of my opinion piece. (I do however thank Alum for making reference to the web site -

Finally, in regard to Alum's final paragraph, the smugness and feelings of superiority that are in evidence here match exactly with those of the administration. Nothing more needs to be said.
Nick Sprayregen.
Posted by: nsprayregen April 24th, 2008 @ 9:48am

Columbia has not "asked the state to condemn any properties in the Manhattanville area of West Harlem" belonging to owners who are unwilling to sell. It may make such a request in the future, but it hasn't yet. So far all it has asked the state to do is analyze whether the use of eminent domain would be appropriate -- and even then, only in a specific, 18-acre portion of Manhattanville.

Additionally, Kelo v. New London will not be as helpful to Mr. Sprayregen as he claims to believe.
If his properties are condemned it will almost surely be because the area is blighted. The Kelo decision wasn't about blight, and prior Supreme Court cases have made it very clear that governments can condemn blighted property and sell it to someone who will put it to productive -- though not necessarily public -- use. The validity of those decisions was not affected by Kelo.

Of course, none of this matters to Mr. Sprayregen because he would rather tell convenient lies than face inconvenient truths. To take but one example, he claims on his website ( that "30% of the space [in the proposed new campus] will be for biohazard chemical laboratories (use/storage)". 30% of 6.8 million square feet is over 2 million square feet -- the *total* amount Columbia plans to use for all new science and engineering facilities on the new campus combined. The proposed biosafety level 3 labs -- the only ones which can fairly be called "biohazard" -- will occupy just a few rooms and will probably have less than 5,000 square feet between them. That's less than one-tenth of 1% of the total.

Mr. Sprayregen also claims that the biohazards will be in the underground "bathtub" and thus could be spread by flooding. In reality, though, these tiny labs will be well above ground and immune to flooding.

Is it any wonder that Mr. Sprayregen has not been able to meet personally with President Bollinger? Does he think that if he had a significant dispute with Microsoft he would get to hash it out across a table with Bill Gates? That's not how things work in the real world -- especially for people who are willing to spread lies to an uninformed public in order to promote their own interests.
Posted by: Alum April 24th, 2008 @ 12:31am

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