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Standing in the parking lot of the Pearlgreen Corporation, a thriving industrial supply company located in the Manhattanville section of West Harlem, Norman Siegel declared last Wednesday, “The time has come to persuade Columbia to remove eminent domain from its West Harlem expansion plans!”

The September 15 press conference marked the addition of the newly created West Harlem Business Group to a broad coalition of business owners, tenants rights organizations and community activists who have vowed to challenge any attempt by Columbia University to use New York State’s eminent domain law to condemn and acquire properties within a 17 acre area running from 125th to 135th Streets, from Broadway to the Hudson River—the site of its proposed new campus.

Pearlgreen is one of the six holdouts represented by Siegel who have refused Columbia’s offers for their properties. Pearlgreen President Lawrence Greenberg said his company invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand its site and has no plans to move. “We were here when there was nothing,” he said. “Now, when things are finally getting better, we want to stay and be a part of it.”

What Siegel and WHBG fear is that Columbia will turn to the Empire State Development Corporation to side-step New York City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure. Whereas the city’s zoning rules require input from Community Board 9 and the ultimate approval of the City Council before any changes are approved, the condemnation of private property by ESDC through eminent domain requires far less public scrutiny.

In New York City, talk of eminent domain conjures memories of Robert Moses, the public works czar who dislocated hundreds of thousands in order to construct massive projects like the Bronx Queens Expressway, Lincoln Center, and Shea Stadium.

More recently, New York and cities around the country have drawn on a 1954 Supreme Court Decision that broadened the idea of “public good” to include the expansion of privately owned businesses at the expense of others, even if the only demonstrated public benefit was an increase in tax revenues. The expansion of the New York City Stock Exchange, the construction of the new offices of the New York Times, the proposed stadiums in Brooklyn and Manhattan’s West Side all have, or will, involve eminent domain.

As Siegel explained, “The use of eminent domain has run amok. The time has come to limit the application of the eminent domain to public use.” Across the country, property rights groups and the courts are beginning to challenge the way in which public power is used to further private interests. On July 30, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned a 1981 decision that had allowed the destruction of a residential neighborhood in order to facilitate the expansion of a General Motors plant.

The extent to which the threat of eminent domain has galvanized West Harlem was made clear at the September 23 general meeting of Community Board 9. The board voted unanimously to demand that Columbia abandon any plans to request state-authorized condemnation. Columbia did not return calls by press time.

CB 9 chair Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, who works with low-income tenants within Columbia’s expansion zone, rose to address the room. “I cannot abide this,” he said. “It will not happen. They’ll have to drag my dead body out of here first!”

Please note: This story was corrected on 9/30/04.