Friday, July 18, 2008

The Columbia expansion moves ahead: eminent domain and more concessions

On Tuesday, Nick Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-it-Away Storage and one of the last property owners in the Columbia expansion footprint not to reach a deal with the university, got a win in state court. The case, Tuck-it-Away Associates, LP v. Empire State Development Corporation, involved a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request, and the appellate division ruled that Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) could not withhold documents prepared in connection with its blight study because the consultant that prepared the study has also been working with Columbia. ESDC had claimed that the documents fell within the FOIL exception for intra- or inter-agency documents, but the court held that "such communications lose their exemption if there is reason to believe that the consultant is communicating with the agency in its own interest or on behalf of another client whose interests might be affected by the agency action addressed by the consultant." In that regard, the court found that the consultant, AKRF, was acting as an advocate for Columbia and that the documents, therefore, were not exempt from disclosure.

Nevertheless, the decision only means that ESDC will have to disclose additional documents to the property owners. And even though the court was rather critical of AKRF's working for both Columbia and ESDC, ESDC announced yesterday that it had commissioned a second blight study prepared by a different firm (although still paid for by Columbia). ESDC also adopted the General Project Plan (GPP) (pdf) for the expansion yesterday. The GPP relies on ESDC's approval of the blight studies, both of which found that "the area surrounding the project’s 17 buildings was mainly characterized by aging, poorly maintained and functionally obsolete industrial buildings, with little indication of recent reinvestment to revive their generally deteriorated conditions." With this finding, ESDC and Columbia are set to kick off any eminent domain proceedings needed to acquire the last few holdout properties in the footprint.

Additionally, ESDC also revealed yesterday that Columbia has agreed to more concessions:
  • "$20 million in funds for the Harlem Community Development Corporation to focus on community development and planning.
  • $1 million for expanded CUNY Health Science and Medical Technician training.
  • Annual undergraduate and Lifelong Learner scholarships for area residents, including local NYCHA tenants.
  • A goal of 40% MWL workforce participation for construction jobs related to project.
  • Provision of a mobile dental center for preschool children, space for senior service programming and a center on disease education for children K-12.
  • Columbia University will also partner with local middle and high schools to develop and implement math and science course support."
More benefits are a good thing for the community, but I'd still like to see the CBA that's supposed to be negotiated.

For the New York Times' coverage, see here. The Observer has some commentary on this flurry of events too. See here and here.

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