A state appellate court has blocked the State of New York from using eminent domain to seize a 17-acre Harlem site on behalf of Columbia University.
The ruling is a major blow to Columbia's plans to build a new $6.3 billion campus extension in West Harlem
The Empire State Development Corporation threatened to use eminent domain to acquire land owned by two property owners who are unwilling to sell voluntarily. The state agency argued the project would improve a blighted area. The court, which has jurisdiction over Manhattan and the Bronx, ridiculed that justification saying it was invented only after Columbia had set its sights on the area.
Columbia already owns 91 percent of the 17 acres it needs for its satellite campus, but it has failed to reach a deal with the owners of two gas stations and a self-storage facility.
One of those landowners, Nick Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-it-Away Self- Storage, says the court's decision is a gratifying end to a five-year legal battle: "My family and I are ecstatic, dozens of calls and emails from the community, and it's a wonderful feeling."
Judge James Catterson pointed to the "idiocy" of a study that considered a loose awning as an example of blight.
Opponents of the Atlantic Yards project pressed a similar case in the Appellate Division earlier this year, but it was heard by a different panel in Brooklyn and they lost. They also lost at the state's highest court in Albany just last week. The Columbia case will head there next. Lawyers for the state say they plan to appeal.