Against the advice of Mark Twain, Columbia University is now locked in a fight with a man who buys ink by the gallon. The Ivy wants to expand its campus to the Manhattanville section of West Harlem, spending $7 billion to bulldoze 17 acres mostly west of Broadway and north of 125th Street and put up academic buildings, research facilities, fine shops and restaurants, and housing.
Standing in the way of Columbia’s plan is one Nick Sprayregen, real estate investor, king of the Tuck-It-Away storage empire, and newly minted newspaper owner. Sprayregen owns five warehouses in the Columbia zone. He hasn’t wanted to sell them, certainly not with the school continuing to threaten their seizure through eminent domain.
And though he may have little choice in the end, at least now he has a bully pulpit in the form of Rising Publications, publisher of nine Westchester community weeklies. Sprayregen got the free papers in June, almost as the icing on a Yonkers real estate deal. He says he’s not sure yet how much he’ll editorialize about his situation, but you can bet he’s got plenty to say.
“They’re a private entity, just like myself, and they’re asking the state to condemn my property,” Sprayregen fumes in his tucked-away office on Broadway. “If this was SUNY, or CUNY, it would be a different story. But they’re a private college, and it’s a land grab, pure and simple. I’m fighting them on principle. It’s wrong.”
Sprayregen vows to drag Columbia all the way to U.S. Supreme Court, and says he’s got the money to do it. With the help of civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel, he won a Freedom of Information case against the state on June 27. At issue are 117 documents that the Empire State Development Corporation, the public entity that would condemn his properties, has refused to hand over. The ESDC is appealing, so Sprayregen still has nada.
But he did succeed in revealing, by means of the judge’s order, that the school and the state are perhaps overly close on this one. At the outset, Columbia hired the AKRF consulting firm to advise it in dealings with the state. As part of those dealings, the state is conducting a study of the neighborhood, known colloquially as the blight study—a task for which it called in the same firm, AKRF.
The judge in Sprayregen’s suit took a dim view of the ESDC’s official stance on the relationship, that a “Chinese wall” existed between AKRF’s work for Columbia and its work for the public. AKRF referred questions to the ESDC, where a spokesperson declined to comment on why the agency won’t release the paperwork. Columbia’s spokesperson, La-Verna Fountain, says the school did nothing wrong, since it hired AKRF first. Who is Columbia to tell anyone, including the state, how to conduct their business?
And besides, Fountain says, just think of what these rows of auto shops and warehouses could become—if only that confounded Sprayregen would cooperate. “We have to think forward, not backward. By working together, we can create a city for the future that benefits everybody,” Fountain says.
Columbia’s Manhattanville project has been buoyed by a philanthropist’s offer of $200 million for a neuroscience center. Already the city’s seventh-largest employer, Columbia is promising to create another 6,000 permanent posts in this neighborhood, in addition to 1,200 construction jobs.
Sprayregen, even without his suburban media holdings, is no small fry himself. Tuck-It-Away owns about a million square feet of warehouse space, 400,000 of them in this neighborhood. Sprayregen likes his space. “In my business, you can’t just pick up and move,” he says. But you can indeed
get moved, against your will, by someone big enough to do it.