NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 9, 2008

Columbia University is buying up property in the neighborhood of Manhattanville, leaving it trashed and vacant, so that the area can be declared "blighted."  If that designation is made, the state will be able to take all the remaining well-kept property (property owners do not want to currently sell) in the area, hand it over to the university, and only then will Columbia clean up the mess.

It's a curious situation -- the government punishing a landowner who takes care of this property and rewarding an owner who does not.  But this is the through-the-looking-glass world of New York eminent domain law, says the Weekly Standard.

Manhattanville, situated just north of Columbia University's main campus, has been targeted by the university for acquisition since the 1960s.  And the current plan is ambitious, to say the least:

  • Columbia wants to take 17 acres, dig down seven stories to create a contiguous 2 million square foot sub-basement connecting all 8 blocks of the new Manhattanville campus.
  • If it gets its way, the university eventually will have 6.8 million square feet of usable indoor space to devote to its business school, school of the arts and Jerome L. Greene Science Center.
  • The project is budgeted at nearly $7 billion and is not scheduled to be completed until 2030.

And the university just might get its way, since in New York, blight is essentially whatever the government says it is, making it nearly impossible for property owners to have the designation overturned.  Moreover, state law does not allow property owners to challenge eminent domain claims in a trial court, says the Standard.

Landowners are upset and are trying to fight the university.  In response, the state hired a firm to carry out a blight study to answer the question once and for all.  But the firm hired works for Columbia, employed personnel from Columbia and Columbia reviewed the results.  Not surprisingly, says the Standard, the team reached the conclusion Columbia desired.

Source: Jonathan V. Last, "Columbia University, Slumlord," The Weekly Standard, December 8, 2008.

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