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Plan for Columbia Expansion Into West Harlem Upheld by New York State Court

ALBANY N.Y. – New York’s top court on Thursday upheld a state redevelopment agency’s use of eminent domain so Columbia University can expand its Ivy League campus over 17 acres in West Harlem.

The Court of Appeals said there was a rational basis for the Empire State Development Corp.’s findings that the area is blighted and Columbia’s expansion constitutes a land use improvement project.

The argument that the Empire State Development Corp. “acted in ‘bad faith” or pretextually is unsubstantiated by the record,” Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick wrote, reversing the decision of a midlevel court.

She noted that the initial blight study was done by consultants who had previously done similar work for Columbia, but that a second study was done by a firm with no such affiliation.

Columbia’s proposed project, estimated in 2007 at $6.3 billion, includes up to 16 new buildings for housing, laboratories and other facilities, two acres of public open space, and tree-lined sidewalks. The university already owns most of the land in the largely commercial area.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger said Thursday that school leaders “look forward to moving ahead with the long-term revitalization of these blocks in Manhattanville that will create thousands of good jobs for New Yorkers and help our city and state remain a global center of pioneering academic research.”

Empire State spokesman Warner Johnston said that the court confirmed the project complies with the law and that the acquisition of holdout properties is essential. It will “enhance the vitality” of both the university and the neighborhood and result in 14,000 construction jobs over 25 years and 6,000 university positions, he said.

Three businesses in the project zone sued. They claimed collusion between the school and state agency, arguing that findings of blight were based on vermin, garbage and mold in buildings that Columbia owned. Attorney Normal Siegel argued the university should not be rewarded for that with the forced sale of others’ property.

Siegel said Thursday he’s talking to his clients about appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We respectfully disagree with the reasons, the analysis and the conclusion,” he said. “At a minimum this should be a wake-up call for the people in New York regarding the abuse of eminent domain. It calls out for major legislative reform.”

Ciparick, joined by five other judges, also dismissed Siegel’s arguments that the statutory definition of blight as a “substandard or insanitary area” was unconstitutionally vague.

“Not only has this court, but the Supreme Court has consistently held that blight is an elastic concept that does not call for an inflexible one-size-fits-all definition,” she wrote.

The court majority likewise upheld Empire State’s finding that the private, not-for-profit institution’s expansion constituted a “civic project,” noting that the economic development statute does not limit appropriate educational projects to public schools and universities.

“Indeed, the advancement of higher education is the quintessential example of a ‘civic purpose,’” Ciparick wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Robert Smith wrote that the blight finding seemed “strained and pretextual,” but no more so than in the recent Atlantic Yards case, in which the court majority upheld the use of eminent domain for a private developer’s project that includes a new NBA arena.

Smith disagreed with the majority’s broad conclusion about what constitutes a “civic project,” saying that the court did not need to address that question in this case and that constitutional constraints require a narrower reading.

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