Thursday, July 19, 2007

Storage Mogul Is an Obstacle to Columbia's Expansion Land Use

Storage Mogul Is an Obstacle to Columbia's Expansion
Land Use
Special to the Sun
July 19, 2007
The most formidable obstacle to Columbia University's 17-acre expansion may not be those who live within the West Harlem project's footprint, but an Upper East Side-based storage mogul.

The largest private landowner within the area targeted for the expansion, Nicholas Sprayregen, a developer, landlord, weekly newspaper publisher, and owner of Tuck-It-Away self-storage, has spent $500,000 so far on attorneys, a lobbyist, and land-use consultants in an attempt to compel the university to scale back its proposal.

A fierce opponent of Columbia's proposed use of eminent domain, the lively father of four has money to spend and is emerging as a critical force in the West Harlem community's opposition to the university's plan.

The expansion would create a campus of research, academic, and graduate housing buildings north of 125th Street, a $6 billion to $7 billion project that would be completed over the next 20-plus years. Columbia, which the has backing of Mayor Dinkins, among others, contends that it needs the new facilities to compete with similar universities, and that the new buildings would enliven the neighborhood.
The proposal is currently one month into the city's seven-month public approval process, giving opponents a six-month window in which to push for any major changes to the plan.

Mr. Sprayregen, 44, is hardly sitting back: He is engaged in a legal battle with the state for failure to disclose documents, and he and his legal team are crafting another lawsuit to challenge the expected use of eminent domain. Soon, he said, he will unveil an alternative plan for Columbia that would include "affordable" housing and not involve private land takings.

The heir of a self-storage business founded by his father in 1980, Mr. Sprayregen lives on the Upper East Side and runs his company out of a windowless office filled with thousands of pages of city and state documents on the plan. The former marathon runner spends hours each day sifting through eminent domain lawsuits from around the country and studying government documents on the plan.

"From the very beginning, he was very energetic, asking 74 questions a minute," his attorney, Norman Siegel, said.

Mr. Siegel said he receives lengthy, exhaustive memos from Mr. Sprayregen written in well-crafted legal language, in addition to a barrage of e-mails. "This morning the e-mail was at 4:45," Mr. Siegel said.

The owner of 18 storage, residential, and commercial buildings around the New York metropolitan area, Mr. Sprayregen is hardly without self-interest. If Columbia moves forward with a revised expansion plan that does not use eminent domain, as Mr. Sprayregen is urging, the value of his five properties in the footprint will undoubtedly skyrocket, allowing for uses far more lucrative than storage.

Mr. Sprayregen acknowledges the potential for financial gain but said his pique is with the concept of a private university taking his property for its own gain.

"Why is it that my property has to be condemned for another private entity?" he said. "Maybe if Columbia wants to come enter into a private 99-year lease and I'll build them a research laboratory. There's no reason why they have to own this in order to do this research."

But the university is planning to create a cohesive campus itself, and it says that if private buildings are allowed to stay within the area, the university's plans for infrastructure, open space, and a general functionality of the complex will suffer.

"These academic research buildings are buildings which we need to build to university specifications," an executive vice president at Columbia, Robert Kasdin, said. "We need to operate to university specifications, and the existing footprints of the private properties don't fit these academic research needs."

Mr. Kasdin said Columbia is still open to alterations in the plan, though he said ruling out eminent domain is not likely.

Project opponents said Mr. Sprayregen's willingness to spend his financial resources helps bring attention to their cause, adding what they say is much-needed pressure on the university. Local elected officials have not been vocal enough in their opposition, opponents say, which allows the community resistance to go relatively unseen citywide. "The nature of media coverage is such that elected officials tend to get a little bit more attention than a community board," an organizer with the Coalition to Preserve Community, Tom DeMott, said. But even if Mr. Sprayregen spends millions, Mr. DeMott said, "we're not exactly talking about an equal playing field here."

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