Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

NY Observer Article: Columbia Expansion Holdout Sues to Block Eminent Domain

January 21, 2009

Columbia Expansion Holdout Sues To Block Eminent Domain

Nick Sprayregen in the summer of 2008.
Nick Sprayregen in the summer of 2008.
The owner of a set of storage buildings in West Harlem, Nick Sprayregen, has filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s use of eminent domain, he said this afternoon. The state has commenced actions to acquire the properties in connection with Columbia University’s planned 17-acre expansion in the area.

In Mr. Sprayregen’s 107-page petition, he challenged the state’s actions as unconstitutional, alleging the development is not intended for civic use. The petition claims that the area is not blighted, as required by law; that the studies demonstrating blight were highly flawed; and that the public approval process was rigged.

Among other claims, Mr. Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-it-Away Storage, said that the city and state collaborated secretly more than five years ago to determine a strategy for the project, and quotes email excerpts that suggest some skepticism on the part of a city official about the process.

“Where a development agency colluded with a developer to drive out businesses,” the petition says, “vacate buildings, and then run them down, and then hired the developer’s own consultant to give the agency the basis for a blight finding, this case raises the questions of the proper limit of judicial deference to agency determinations.”

More from the petition [also see below]:

This case is about the abuse of the government’s power of eminent domain to secure for a developer a contested area of West Harlem it had long sought to control and for which it had formed a fully blown plan. This case is about the secret collaboration between ESDC and New York City agencies in a complex plan to give that developer, an elite private university, everything it wanted, without compromise or limitation, while evading public review and accountability. This case is about favoritism shown to an elite private university over community interests, clearly and consistently expressed through the local Community Planning Board … And this case is about how ESDC, in its determination to maximize Columbia’s private benefit, overreached its statutory authorization, made findings in bad faith, and fabricated pretextual purposes to cover up the illegality of its dominant purpose.



Eminent domain law in New York tends to afford the state a large amount of power, at least relative to other states, so it seems safe to assume Mr. Sprayregen has an uphill fight on his hands.


NYT Article – State Officials Approve Expansion by Columbia

December 19, 2008

 By: Corey Kilgannon and Stacey Stowe


Comprehensive Article from Weekly Standard – Columbia University, Slumlord

December 1, 2008

By: Jonathan Last, December 8, 2008

Village Voice – Everyone Listens to Columbia’s Disaster Expert – Except Columbia

October 1, 2008

By: Elizabeth Dwoskin, October 1, 2008


NY Times: 2 Gas Stations, and a Family’s Resolve, Confront Columbia Expansion Plan

September 23, 2008

By: Timothy Williams, September 21, 2008

Weekly Standard: Razing West Harlem

September 11, 2008

By: Duncan Currie, August 9, 2007

Reason Magazine: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

September 11, 2008

By: Damon W. Root, September 3, 2008

NYT Article – Harlem Area is Blighted, State Agency Declares

September 10, 2008

By: Timothy Williams, July 18, 2008

NY Daily News Op-Ed: Columbia, Play Nice

September 10, 2008

By: Errol Louis, January 27, 2007

NYT Article – Neutrality in Expansion at Columbia is Questioned

September 10, 2008

By: Anemona Hartocollis, June 30, 2007

Columbia Launches Land-Grab Plan

September 10, 2008

by: doug feiden, february 25, 2007



The Truth

September 8, 2008


When Academia Puts Profit Ahead of Wonder



Published: September 6, 2008

“It is the policy and objective of the Congress to use the patent system to promote the utilization of inventions arising from federally supported research or development” and “to promote collaboration between commercial concerns and nonprofit organizations, including universities.”

— The Bayh-Dole Act, a k a the University Small Business Patent Procedures Act

THE law of unintended consequences is perhaps less a “law” than a simple statement of fact: We cannot accurately predict all the results of our actions. We may do something with the best of intentions, and sometimes even accomplish the good toward which we aim. Yet, at the same time, we are all too often surprised by results that didn’t occur to us beforehand.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 started out with the best of intentions. By clearing away the thicket of conflicting rules and regulations at various federal agencies, it set out to encourage universities to patent and license results of federally financed research. For the first time, academicians were able to profit personally from the market transfer of their work. For the first time, academia could be powered as much by a profit motive as by the psychic reward of new discovery.

University “tech transfer” offices have boomed from a couple dozen before the law’s passage to nearly 300 today. University patents have leapt a hundredfold. Professors are stepping away from the lab and lecture hall to navigate the thicket of venture capital, business regulations and commercial competition.

None of these are necessarily negative outcomes. But more than a quarter-century after President Jimmy Carter signed it into law, the Bayh-Dole Act, sponsored by the former Senators Birch Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, and Robert Dole, Republican of Kansas, is under increasing scrutiny by swelling ranks of critics. The primary concern is that its original intent — to infuse the American marketplace with the fruits of academic innovation — has also distorted the fundamental mission of universities.

In the past, discovery for its own sake provided academic motivation, but today’s universities function more like corporate research laboratories. Rather than freely sharing techniques and results, researchers increasingly keep new findings under wraps to maintain a competitive edge. What used to be peer-reviewed is now proprietary. “Share and share alike” has devolved into “every laboratory for itself.”

In trying to power the innovation economy, we have turned America’s universities into cutthroat business competitors, zealously guarding the very innovations we so desperately want behind a hopelessly tangled web of patents and royalty licenses.

Of course, there is precedent for scientific secrecy, notes Daniel S. Greenberg , author of “Science for Sale: The Perils, Rewards and Delusions of Campus Capitalism” (University of Chicago Press, 2007). When James Watson and Francis Crick were homing in on DNA’s double-helix structure in the 1950s, they zealously guarded their work from prying eyes until they could publish their findings, to be certain that they would get the credit for making the discovery.

“They didn’t try to patent it,” Mr. Greenberg notes, “but somebody doing the same work today would certainly take a crack at patenting the double helix.”

In fact, it was the life sciences — in particular, biotechnology — that started universities down the slippery commercial slope in the first place. Even before the Bayh-Dole Act, pharmaceutical companies were eagerly trolling campuses, looking for projects to finance. After the law was passed, they stepped up their efforts, but now with renewed zeal for keeping potential trade secrets from competitors.

While patients have benefited from the growing supply of new medications, the universities have obtained patents not only for the actual substances but also for the processes and methods used to make them, potentially hampering discovery of even more beneficial treatments.

“Bayh-Dole tore down the taboos that existed against universities engaging in overtly commercial activity. Universities really thought that they were going to make it rich,” said Jennifer Washburn, author of “University Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education” (Basic Books, 2005). “Each school was convinced that if they came up with that one blockbuster invention, they could solve all their financial problems.”

Ms. Washburn says that was “extremely wrong-headed.” Initially reacting to the law by slapping patents on every possible innovation, universities quickly discovered that patents were an expensive proposition. The fees and legal costs involved in obtaining a single patent can run upward of $15,000, and that doesn’t count the salaries of administrative staff members. Instead of bringing home the bacon, university tech transfer offices were throwing money into the void with little hope of returns.

To date, Ms. Washburn says, data gathered by the Association of University Technology Managers, a trade group, show that fewer than half of the 300 research universities actively seeking patents have managed to break even from technology transfer efforts. Instead, two-thirds of the revenue tracked by the association has gone to only 13 institutions.

Part of the problem has been a lingering misunderstanding about where the value lies in innovation. Patenting a new basic science technique, or platform technology, puts it out of the reach of graduate students who might have made tremendous progress using it.

Similarly, exclusive licensing of a discovery to a single company thwarts that innovation’s use in any number of other fields. R. Stanley Williams, a nanotechnologist from Hewlett-Packard, testified to Congress in 2002 that much of the academic research to which H.P. has had difficulty gaining access could be licensed to several companies without eroding its intellectual property value.

“Severe disagreements have arisen over conflicting interpretations of the Bayh-Dole Act,” he said. “Large U.S.-based corporations have become so disheartened and disgusted with the situation, they are now working with foreign universities, especially the elite institutions in France, Russia and China.”

THE issue is further clouded by “reach through” licenses, complex arrangements used by many tech transfer offices. A reach-through lets the patent holder claim a share of any profits that result from using, say, an enabling technology, even if those profits come several steps down the market transfer line. Several universities are already embroiled in messy lawsuits trying to sort out who is entitled to what.

Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of campus commercialization is that research decisions are now being based on possible profits, not on the inherent value of knowledge. “Blue sky” research — the kind of basic experimentation that leads to a greater understanding of how the world works — has largely been set aside in favor of projects considered to have more immediate market potential.

In academia’s continuing pursuit of profit, the wonder of simple serendipitous discovery has been left on the curb.

Janet Rae-Dupree writes about science and emerging technology in Silicon Valley.

New York Times: Hearing on Columbia Plan Elicits Emotional Speeches

September 5, 2008

Hearing on Columbia Plan Elicits Emotional Speeches from the New York Times, 9/5/08

Zero Hour in West Harlem (from The NY Observer, July 2008)

September 4, 2008

For more than three years, Nicholas Sprayregen has kept his word to Columbia University.

The largest private landowner in the footprint of the university’s planned 17-acre West Harlem expansion, he has vowed time and again to fight the university’s attempts to oust him, so long as the school threatens the use of eminent domain.

Now, as the bulk of the area’s politicians have endorsed the expansion, community opposition has gone from a boil to a simmer and all but one other private-property owner has agreed to sell to the university, the fight’s final chapter is poised to be strictly a legal one between two parties: the university and Mr. Sprayregen.

Last Thursday, New York’s Empire State Development Corporation declared as blighted the area northwest of Columbia’s main campus, starting the process to acquire Mr. Sprayregen’s four properties through eminent domain. The action sets the stage for a lengthy legal battle with the institution, as the owner of Tuck-It-Away Self-Storage vows to keep the challenge going.

Still, speaking from his West Harlem office on Friday, the energetic 45-year-old seemed to have adopted, at least temporarily, a more somber outlook than he usually conveys.

“I’m pessimistic that we will be successful,” he said, surrounded by piles of documents related to the expansion. “I have a feeling that if we’re going to get anything, the only way it’s going to happen is that we’re first going to have to lose in the New York courts and then appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and hopefully have them take on the case, and then win.

“That’s obviously a long shot.”


SINCE THE UNIVERSITY first announced its intention to expand in the area in 2002, and especially in the past year, as the proposal made its way through the city’s rezoning process, Mr. Sprayregen has watched the landscape around him shift dramatically, with a constant stream of victories for the university.

Three years ago, he was joined by five other business owners in a group that opposed the expansion and vowed to fight property takings. But as of mid-June, he is now the only member left, and just one other private landowner—the Singh family, which owns two gas stations—remains without a deal with Columbia.

Mr. Sprayregen met community opposition last year in an attempt to rezone his properties himself, and he has all but given up hope on a land-swap proposal he made to Columbia, saying university officials in a recent meeting seemed unwilling to part with the property he was eyeing.

The bulk of the political process surrounding the project has also come and gone as well. The local community board opposed the plan, but after a concession package, the City Council voted for the university’s requested rezoning, clearing the way for the school to proceed.

It was through this seven-month rezoning approval process that Mr. Sprayregen sought to gain enough momentum to leverage a deal with Columbia in which it would drop eminent domain from its plan. Local elected officials, particularly members of the City Council, are highly influential in this process, and at least in Mr. Sprayregen’s thinking, could have pushed Columbia to reach a deal he considered fair.

But Columbia proved successful in swaying the Harlem politicians to its side, perhaps the most significant element of its success with the expansion to date.

Enlisting the help of lobbyist Bill Lynch, a former aide to Mayor David Dinkins, the university emphasized the effect the expansion would have on creating jobs and providing housing. Just before the passage of the rezoning in December, it reached an agreement with the elected officials and members of the community to provide tens of millions in commitments to below-market-rate housing, open space, hiring practices and other concessions.

The plan won an easy approval in the City Council, and when the state released the blight study and a general project plan last week, it came with statements of support from, among others, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, Assemblyman Keith Wright and Governor David Paterson, who once represented the area and who previously called for a statewide moratorium on eminent domain.

Not on that list is State Senator Bill Perkins, the former councilman who took Mr. Paterson’s seat in 2006. Since the rezoning passed, Mr. Perkins has been the lone elected official in the area still critical of the expansion, saying there is a “hue and cry” in the community against the plan, and preparations for the use of eminent domain seem like a “cooked process.”

“The community does not feel as if their needs have been taken into consideration, and they do not feel that, in the end, they will be in the picture,” he said. “I think [Columbia officials] have done a poor job addressing some of the concerns that they have, and I’ve tried to help them recognize it, but I guess they felt they had what they needed in terms of so-called political support and decided to move on.”


In contrast to the rezoning, the use of eminent domain does not require approval from elected officials, and now that the state has declared the area blighted, condemnations could begin in coming months, after a public comment period.

At that point, Mr. Sprayregen expects to begin litigation, and his attorney, Norman Siegel, said he expects to challenge the finding of “blight,” a requisite for condemnation.

“Over the past seven years, Columbia has purchased many of these lots and then they had a practice of vacating and undermaintaining the property,” Mr. Siegel said. “They benefit from the conditions that they either created or allowed to continue.”

Columbia has previously denied any intentional neglect of the properties in the footprint, and David Stone, a university spokesman, said via e-mail, “We also continue to be hopeful that we can reach mutually beneficial, negotiated agreements with the two remaining commercial property owners.”

As for the effect litigation would have on the start of the expansion, Mr. Stone declined to speculate, but part of the area where Columbia wants to build its first buildings contains one of Mr. Sprayregen’s properties and the two gas stations belonging to the Singh family. (The Singhs did not respond to requests for comment.)


NEW YORK’S LAWS on eminent domain are viewed as rather favorable to the state when compared with other laws nationwide, making the climb for Mr. Sprayregen a distinctly uphill one.

Landowners in other eminent domain cases often hope that a prolonged legal battle will derail a project through a changing political landscape or economic climate. But Columbia’s plan seems prone to more stability than a typical private developer’s. The university has a multibillion dollar endowment; already owns the bulk of the land in the footprint; and has always said the expansion is a long-term proposition, and thus a two-year fight through the court system—landowners in Brooklyn have been challenging eminent domain in the Atlantic Yards project for more than a year and a half—does not seem likely to spoil the university’s plans.

Such a fight can be expensive for both sides. For Atlantic Yards, an Empire State Development Corporation spokesman said the state has spent more than $8 million on legal fees, which apply to litigation and other expenses (the state’s fees are reimbursed by developer Forest City Ratner, and Columbia University will reimburse the state for fees related to eminent domain).

Mr. Sprayregen, who estimated he has spent about $1 million so far in legal expenses and other fees, said he was prepared to commit a substantial sum to continue the fight.

“I think if we’re able to take it all the way to the Supreme Court, it will cost another $2 million,” he said. “Obviously, we now have a real legal fight on our hands.”