Harlem Suit: State Keeps Secrets

A group of West Harlem business owners and activists sued the Empire State Development Corporation on Thursday, alleging that the agency violated the state's Freedom of Information Law by refusing to divulge documents related to Columbia University's plan to take over 17 acres north of 125th Street.

The lawsuit is part of a larger effort by the organization, the West Harlem Business Group, to fend off an expected bid by the university to use eminent domain to clear the area.


Inside the Columbia footprint: Is eminent domain imminent? (Tina Zimmer)

Columbia's Manhattanville plan is to construct biotechnology research and teaching facilities on several blocks now occupied by auto repair shops, small factories, storage facilities, and several residential buildings.

The university says it needs to expand in order to compete with other top-tier institutions for research talent and dollars. Local residents and business owners say theirs' is a viable— if underserved—area that they do not wish to be forced to leave. Opponents of the plan say they might welcome a scaled-back expansion, but complain that Columbia has been secretive about exactly what it wants to do and when. "The point is, Columbia hasn't been open with us, the government hasn't been open with us," Nick Sprayregen, owner of Tuckitaway storage, located in a bustling, brightly painted building sitting within the footprint of Columbia's plan, said at a press conference there today.

Last November, the business group's attorney, Norman Siegel, requested information on the plan from the ESDC and received 50 pages of documents addressing the possibility of condemnation, zoning changes, and financial arrangements. This past June, the group asked for any new information acquired since November. It was turned down, with the ESDC stating (according to the lawsuit) that the documents were exempt from the freedom of information law (FOIL) because they "would impair present or imminent contract awards or collective bargaining negotiations."

Siegel says that the exemption does not apply to the documents he suspects the agency has. "The ESDC did not comply with the law," Siegel claimed at a press conference Friday. "This lawsuit sends a clear message that members of the West Harlem community—businesses and residents—will vigorously fight any violation of the lawsuit, including, if necessary, going to the court to uphold the rule of law. West Harlem will not allow this project to be done in secret."

Siegel says the documents the ESDC is hoarding might reveal which politicians, if any, are sitting in on meetings about the plan. The papers might also indicate when Columbia intends to seek approval through the city's ULURP process, and whether and when it plans to move to seize properties under eminent domain. Getting the state to employ eminent domain requires a finding that the area is "blighted." So if Columbia does seek condemnation, the community group needs time to develop a response—which would essentially say, "Hey, we're not blighted!"

In a statement, the ESDC said, "Our lawyers are reviewing the court papers and ESDC intends to vigorously defend this lawsuit."

Columbia, which declined to comment on the lawsuit, says the planned research campus will seek cures to dread diseases, provide jobs to local residents, and displace relatively few businesses and tenants. The university says it is committed to working with the neighborhood.

But the threat of condemnation makes negotiations meaningless, say opponents. "If eminent domain is not taken off the table, then what is there to discuss?" says Nellie Bailey, a local organizer. Even the threat of eminent domain is having an impact, the opponents say, with people and businesses getting displaced. The university has owned property in the footprint for years and has been buying more. That raises an interesting question, says Siegel: "If there is blight, who caused it?"

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