Images of sign courtesy of Central Park Conservancy
Our blog posts most often focus on current eminent domain news, but the truth is that the process been around for a very long time. Even during the mid-19th century, the power of eminent domain was used to requisition private land for public use.
We recently read about an announcement from the office of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio about plans to build a monument in honor a prominent African-American family. The family once lived in the bustling community called Seneca Village which was located between New York’s West 83rd and 89th Streets.
The community can trace its roots to 1825, to two landowners subdivided their property and began selling it off as lots. Andrew Williams, a 25-year-old African-American shoe shiner, was the first to purchase land in the new settlement. By 1855, around 225 people lived in the village. (Approximately one-third of the population were Irish immigrants.) Many members of the African-American community that lived there owned their own property. Because it was a distance from the crowds of lower Manhattan, they avoided some of the city’s discrimination.
Things took a dramatic change when local authorities began moving forward with plans to build Central Park. Through the process of eminent domain, Seneca Village residents were forced to leave their homes. It is estimated that over 1,600 people were displaced in order to make room for the development of Central Park.
Similar to today, residents felt that while they were compensated, it wasn’t what they deserved. Also similar is the effect on the community. “Many of the residents stayed relatively local to New York [after the village was demolished], but what they did not do was stay together,” explains Diana Wall, an anthropologist. “And that’s what’s so tragic: It was a community, and then the community was gone.”
The monument planned will honor the Lyons family: Albro, Mary Joseph and their daughter Maritcha. Each played an important role in NYC’s history as abolitionists, educators and property owners. Maritcha founded the Woman’s Loyal Union of New York and Brooklyn, which advocated for women’s rights and racial justice.
There has been criticism about the monument, as the proposed location is on 106th Street, approximately 20 blocks north of where Seneca Village was actually located. Many people feel that where the monument is located is just as important as to whom it honors.
A spokesperson for the Department of Cultural Affairs responded to the criticism, saying that “A range of factors are considered when selecting sites for public monuments, including feasibility, cost, historical significance, contemporary context, and public prominence. The Lyons family’s contributions exemplified values that still resonate powerfully here and beyond.”
Just in case you are wondering, the memorial will be privately funded by the Ford Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.
The World Series is upon us. While many are reviewing scores and players, others are taking stock in the role of eminent domain in baseball. Specifically, Nationals Park in Washington DC. So often a new stadium is a cause for celebration and pride, especially if there is a new team coming to town. But how often do we think about how that new stadium got there and who was displaced in the process? A while back this was the case for Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. In 2008, it was the case for Nationals Stadium.
A recent story in The Washington Post reveals the stories behind some of the individuals and businesses that were affected by eminent domain and the building of Nationals Stadium. Similar to many of our posts on the subject, the stories are often emotional and expensive.
Plans for the stadium began in 2004 when then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Major League Baseball announced a deal to bring baseball back to Washington. It had been more than 30-years since the Senators baseball team left.
It may have seemed like a dangerous and unused area ready to be developed, but South Capitol Street SW, just a five-minute drive from the Capitol dome on the west edge of the Navy Yard, featured an area of 21-acres with several family businesses including asphalt plant, a trash-transfer station, car repair shops, warehouses, towing operations, a stonework restoration studio, and several adult nightclubs. Due to zoning laws, many of these businesses had no place to go once they were forced to move.
For example, Joey Roubin and his family owned an asphalt plant with his family that was shut down to make way for the Stadium. Eminent Domain proceedings resulted in subpoenas, legal judgments, bureaucratic red tape and years of delays. He finally reopened the business a few miles away at Blue Plains in Southwest Washington.
In the name of economic renewal, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in public financing for the ballpark. As might be expected, support for the project was divided along the lines of race and class. Affluent areas were more supportive of the project and poorer neighborhoods were fearful of being left behind by gentrification.
Businesses and families faced years of court arbitration to finally find some sort of settlement with the city government. Payouts may sound generous, but property owners felt that they did not get what they deserved. Sadly, in the case of the Stadium some businesses never reopened, and several had to move away. Others relocated elsewhere, all in the name of baseball.
After a five-month assessment in 2005, city planners offered the 23 property owners a total of $95 million for their land, which two years earlier had been assessed at $32 million. If that seems like a lot, it still does not take into consideration the cost to taxpayers once negotiations were finished. In all, 16 of the 23 property owners filed for court-monitored arbitration, and each would ultimately settle for more than the city had offered — though less than they had sought. (Hence the need for an “MVP” legal team.)
So this week, as we watch our favorite baseball teams play ball in the stadium, let’s remind ourselves that eminent domain may have been a playing factor.
Photo: Google Maps
This is exactly the eminent domain blog post you would expect from us! It has all of the elements that we love to write about 1) it’s about eminent domain 2) it took several years to evolve 3) it deals with an interesting property in NYC 4) there was money involved.
So here goes!
This week it was reported by various news sources that Columbia University bought a three-story industrial building in Manhattanville for $33.6 million. For those unfamiliar with the NYC landscape and its neighborhoods, Manhattanville is also known as West Harlem or West Central Harlem. Technically, the neighborhood is bordered on the north by 135th Street; on the south by 122nd and 125th Streets; on the west by Hudson River; and on the east by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and the campus of City College.
Columbia University bought the property almost a decade after it used eminent domain to take
a nearby property from the owner, Nick Sprayregen who passed away in 2016. Sprayregen was known as a “self-storage mogul” and the family are owners of Tuck It Away storage. The University bought 3300 Broadway between West 133rd and West 134th Streets from the Sprayregen family officially on October 2, 2019.
The sale comes years after Sprayregen, who waged a six-year and almost $2 million battle against Columbia University, tried to stop it from using eminent domain to make the purchase after he refused to sell his nearby property at 3261 Broadway. The property was planned to be used for the college’s 17-acre expansion plans.
In 2009, a judge ruled that Columbia couldn’t use eminent domain to take control of the property. A year later the decision was overturned in an appeals court and Columbia University eventually bought the land from the New York State Urban Development for around $17 million. The sale was completed in 2012. Gerald Sprayregen, father of Nick Sprayregen, said he got a little compensation for giving up his property, but nowhere near as much as they were worth. “I was very unhappy with that,” he said.
The Broadway property is part of Columbia’s $6.3 billion expansion project in the neighborhood. Things are moving right along, as the university has about a third of its buildings either open or under construction. Those familiar with the neighborhood know the location as home to a parking garage and the El Mundo department store.
Perhaps time and a bit of cash heals all wounds. Gerald Sprayregen told reporters that he’s excited about Columbia’s plans for the neighborhood and hopes to seem them completed soon.
“I just think that what Columbia is doing there will be the most beautiful thing,” he said. “I’d like to eventually see it. And at the age of 84, I can’t wait too long.”
Mr. Sprayregen can’t wait and neither can we. After all, it would mean a follow-up blog post!