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!
Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY
Our blog posts most often focus on eminent domain and they almost always have a multi-year history. Such is the recent news that the state of New Jersey has denied permits for a $1.1 billion pipeline that would bring Marcellus Shale natural gas to the state. The project would run from northeastern Pennsylvania and end near Trenton, New Jersey.
Heading up the decision to deny is Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy. It seems like there is a trend to announce news over twitter and such was the case with this matter. Gov. Murphy tweeted a copy of the Department of Environmental Protection's permit denial letter to the PennEast Pipeline Company. He also tweeted that he's "committed to transitioning New Jersey to 100% clean energy by 2050".
Talks of the project started in 2015 and the firm won federal approval for the project in 2018. It sounds like 2019 is the year of suffering setbacks.
Some additional details include that NJ's Department of Environmental Protection said it denied the permits based on a previous ruling by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That ruling that said PennEast couldn't use eminent domain to acquire approximately 42 properties owned by the state because the property is being preserved for farmland and open space. The DEP said that now PennEast no longer had the authority to carry out necessary requirements within New Jersey law.
What do companies always come back with on their lists of positives for a project? You guessed it! PennEast has argued the pipeline would bring jobs.
They also said it would bring low-cost natural gas to homes in PA, NY and NJ. Also easy to have guessed is the response from environmental groups who worry that the project will cut a scar across the landscape and harm wildlife.
PennEast said in a statement that it's not finished fighting for the pipeline. So, it is safe to say in this blog post statement that we’re not finished writing about it either.
This blog post shows that eminent domain happens everywhere and to everyone. Even in Utica, New York which has a population of about 60,000.
Recently, The Urban Renewal Agency heard arguments at a hearing against the use of eminent domain to take a tax parcel on which a portion of the former Northland building sits at 317 Court Street in Utica, New York.
This is part of the agency’s plan to sell the entire Northland building. Currently, the property sits on two city-owned and two privately owned tax parcels and is being looked at for redevelopment through a competitive bidding process. One of the privately-owned parcels belongs to developer Vincent Bailey and the other is owned by the Pezzolanella family.
As with most of our eminent domain posts, there is a hitch. In this case, the city is in negotiations with the Pezzolanella family to buy its parcel and that seems to be moving along as far as we have heard. Negotiations to buy Bailey’s parcel have failed. What is The Urban Renewal Agency supposed to do in this situation? You guessed it – consider using eminent domain.
The lawyer for Bailey, Kathleen Bennett of Bond, Schoeneck & King, questioned the fact that there is no specific proposed project attached to the parcel. “The notice was kind of vague,” she said, summarizing her concerns. “It just said for some unknown public use, which doesn’t give the property owner a lot of opportunity to comment. I think the law is kind of clear that there should be some kind of more defined use.” Also in question are procedural issues, including the fact that there was no map showing the property at the hearing.
If we don’t have your attention yet, maybe this will do it. Bailey, whose parcel includes 20-percent of the building, wants to buy the city-owned portion of the building so he can develop a multi-use property with retail space and apartments. Baileytestified saying that he is willing to work the authority to redevelop the site to meet the authority’s mission.
Even if they wanted to, The Urban Renewal Agency cannot sell Bailey the city’s property. That’s because the authority is committed to an open, transparent and competitive bidding process, according to the city’s commissioner of urban and economic development, Brian Thomas. “Negotiating with a single party isn’t an open and transparent process,” he said. “It also markets its properties before arriving at that competitive bidding process, but it can’t market part of a building.” Thomas confirmed that the agency always followed proper procedure.
What is next? The agency now has 90 days to issues its findings.
In the meantime, we can share some background on this eminent domain case. The city acquired its portion of the building through a tax foreclosure on one parcel and through negotiations with Bank of America for another parcel. In 2018, Bailey bought his parcel from the Lilac Group through his Court Street Development LLC. The 0.24-acre parcel contains about 7,268 of the approximately 39,000-square-foot building.
Councilman Joe Marino, who is running for mayor, has put his two cents in saying that eminent domain in this case is a “very dangerous precedent.” The city had cited a 2005 Supreme Court case —Kelo vs. City of New London — to support its right to use eminent domain for economic development purposes. But Marino cautioned authority members to consider the “debacle” in which that case ended. The developer in that Connecticut case abandoned the project, leaving a vacant lot behind. (You may remember this case from one of our blog posts.)
There are also questions from Bennett’s team as to how applicable the case is to the current situation. New York law allows industrial development agencies to use eminent domain for economic redevelopment, while Connecticut had no law allowing condemnation for economic redevelopment.
Technically, The Urban Renewal Agency is not an industrial development agency. However, it can condemn to meet urban renewal plans or to improve “substandard or unsanitary” areas. Some think that 317 Court Street may qualify.
Bailey said he had offered the city a “fair, just” price for its two tax parcels. The price that was more than any authority project had brought as of the time of his offer. Which puts things in a bit of an odd situation. Bailey said, “to have them take our property and then offer it back to us. It is not a very welcoming feeling.”
It’s an interesting series of events, and one that shows how eminent domain can happen to anyone no matter where they live.