Thursday, April 21, 2005

New York Daily News - Boroughs - Memo stirs nabe anger at Columbia

Memo stirs nabe anger at Columbia


Community outrage over a proposed expansion of Columbia University's campus into West Harlem spilled onto the school's doorsteps yesterday.
Local business owners and community leaders gathered outside the university's gates to protest a newly publicized memo that reveals the school has paid a state agency $300,000 to consider using the power of eminent domain to pave the way for the proposed 18-acre expansion.

"Columbia has been giving the impression that it's an innocent bystander. This document is evidence that it's an active participant," said Norman Siegel, the civil liberties lawyer who has been hired by seven business owners who have refused to sell their property to the university.

The August 2004 agreement between Columbia and the Empire State Development Corp. states the university will pay $300,000 - and more if necessary - to cover the agency's costs of investigating the possible use of eminent domain. This sweeping power allows the state to condemn private property so that it can be used for a public purpose.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a landmark ruling this summer on what uses count as public.

The agreement was turned up recently by the student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, through a freedom of information request.

But Deborah Wetzel, a spokeswoman for the state agency, said it is "normal procedure" for the agency to require developers to set aside money to pay off any costs the agency may incur while vetting real estate plans.

"ESDC is currently evaluating the proposal," Wetzel said, but the agency has made no decision on whether to take action.

Liz Golden, director of operation planning and special projects for Columbia, said the document is consistent with the university's position all along.

"We have said repeatedly that the decision to use eminent domain is the state's, and we are not prepared to take the option off the table. However, it remains a last resort," she said.

Siegel said the payment raises serious questions of conflict of interest.

"If this is routine, they should stop it," said Siegel, who plans to urge Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and state lawmakers to review the practice.

The holdout business owners and community leaders plan to stage a sit-in with students on the campus next Wednesday to protest the expansion plans.

Originally published on April 21, 2005

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