Thursday, August 09, 2007

Vote Fails to Oust Property Owner From LDC - Spreyregen a Target As Expansion Fight Gets Personal

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Vote Fails to Oust Property Owner From LDC
Spreyregen a Target As Expansion Fight Gets Personal
By Erin Durkin
Issue date: 8/9/07 Section: News

A vote to oust Nick Spreyregen, the largest private property owner in Columbia's proposed Manhattanville expansion zone, from the West Harlem Local Development Corporation failed Tuesday night.

The attempt to remove Spreyregen, who owns Tuck-It-Away Storage and has vocally refused to sell to Columbia, is the latest development in the increasingly heated and personal debate over the expansion, in which Spreyregen has come under attack from Columbia supporters who say he is self-interested and not representative of the West Harlem community.

The motion to remove Spreyregen from his seat as a representative for commercial property owners on the LDC, which is negotiating a community benefits agreement with Columbia, was sponsored by Susan Russell, chief of staff to City Councilman Robert Jackson, D-Harlem. She argued that his own application to rezone his properties in Manhattanville presents a conflict of interest.

"He has such a huge financial interest," she said. "It's not personal. This board had its own mission and it's inconsistent with Nick's personal mission, and that's why I raised the issue."

The motion failed to get the super-majority it would have needed to succeed. Twelve LDC members voted to kick Spreyregen off the board, while eight voted to keep him, according to Jesse Masyr, a lawyer for the LDC. Fourteen votes were required to pass the motion.

With the exception of State Senator Bill Perkins, D-Harlem, all the elected officials' representatives who were present voted to oust Spreyregen.

Spreyregen said that the effort to oust him was "nothing more than a witch hunt," which he said had been going on since the early weeks after the board was formed, when an anonymous letter was circulated calling for his removal.

"From the get-go, I think they viewed me as a threat to finding an easy way to accommodate Columbia," he said. "I'm quite frankly shocked at the way the politicians are acting."

The Coalition to Preserve Community, which opposes Columbia's expansion plans, lauded the LDC's decision, calling Spreyregen "the only person with the financial resources to raise the kind of hell that threatens political control, and threatens the chance that Columbia will not get its way."

Though he will remain on the LDC, the public battle over Spreyregen's credibility is likely to continue.

While Spreyregen is not only vocal opponent of Columbia's plans, he does have the deepest pockets. He has hired his own lobbyist to fight the possible condemnation of his property by eminent domain. A judge recently ruled in his favor in a lawsuit seeking to force the Empire State Development Corporation to disclose documents on the possible condemnation, a ruling that the ESDC is appealing.

Much of the criticism directed at Spreyregen can be traced to former Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch, whose firm, Bill Lynch Associates, was hired by Columbia in April 2006 to consult and lobby on behalf of its Manhattanville expansion.

The firm is working to assemble a coalition of community groups, labor organizations, and religious leaders in support of the expansion plan. According to Kevin Wardally, senior vice president for political and government affairs at BLA, the coalition will formally announce its formation in the next few weeks.

"The press has covered the sexier story, that there are people opposed. There are people who are for this, and those people need to get their voice heard," Wardally said. "We've been instrumental in helping to galvanize that support on behalf of Columbia."

"Many of them don't necessarily like hearing from a wealthy developer from Westchester trying to represent them," he added, in reference to Spreyregen.

"We're not conducting a campaign [against Spreyregen] but we want to get both sides of the story out," Wardally said. He said the firm was not involved with the attempt to oust Spreyregen from the LDC.

The Baptist Ministers Evening Conference of Greater New York, which Wardally said is one of the groups his firm has reached out to, distributed fliers at a recent community meeting, stating, "Don't let outsiders like Nick Spreyregen tell you what they want you to know about the proposed Columbia expansion."

The flier stated that Spreyregen might be planning to build luxury housing on his Manhattanville properties. It also stated that Spreyregen had to pay a $95,000 fine to the Department of Labor for underpaying his employees. It went on to list several benefits of Columbia's Manhattanville expansion, including new jobs and educational opportunities.

Sunshine Sachs, a public relations firm hired by BLA, has made phone calls to reporters to speak critically of Spreyregen. Wardally said the goal was to "let them know about who the opposition in this case really is."

Spreyregen said that, if he is able to retain control of his properties, he plans to build as much affordable housing as possible, as well as continuing to operate his storage company. He said that the dispute with the Department of Labor was over a "technicality," in which managers were classified as salaried employees when regulations called for them to be classified as hourly workers.

"It really is despicable that they could have a need to put out these personal smear campaigns against me and dredge up things and twist facts really to try to discredit me," he said. "I think that if Columbia was very confident that they would get their way in terms of eminent domain, they would not have to resort to such low-ball tactics.... They're obviously running a little scared."

University officials have been publicly and privately critical of Spreyregen, and in a March appearance on the Brian Lehrer Show, University President Lee Bollinger referred to him and other Manhattanville business owners as "outsiders" who do not represent the community.

But the University is distancing itself from the latest round of attacks, saying it has not directed Lynch's firm to disseminate information critical of him. "Columbia's not involved with that in any way shape or form," spokeswoman Victoria Benitez said. "That's not our style."

Anna Phillips contributed to this article.

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