SCHENECTADY -- In the mid-1800s, Union College owned a sliver of land along the East River in Queens, an investment that shaped the course of the college until it was finally sold in 1898 and land now primed to be the New York home of Amazon.
That land, Anable Basin in Long Island City, was the namesake of Union's representative during the development of the land, Henry Anable, who was also a relative of the college’s longtime-president, Eliphalet Nott. The property generated income for Union throughout the second half of the 1800s. But for decades it was also the source of legal spats, legislative wrangling and internal college discord, according to the Encyclopedia of Union College History.
The encyclopedia’s account of the land’s history suggests it was both partly responsible for driving the college to financial peril and for saving it from that peril.
The last of the college’s Queens holdings were sold in February 1898 for $1.1 million, potentially sparing the school from financial ruin. In a note found in the papers of Union’s then-President Andrew Van Vranken Raymond, apparently a letter Raymond wrote to the faculty, Raymond said the sale proceeds may well have saved the college. He also lamented what the property may one day have become.
“The sale was effected at an opportune moment and saved the college from imminent peril and disaster,” Raymond wrote. “But it also extinguished the somewhat visionary hopes of great treasure to be extracted from the soil of Long Island City.”
Nott began purchasing farms and other land in the Hunter’s Point area of Queens with partners in 1831, eventually increasing the holdings on both sides of Newtown Creek, which divides lower Queens from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to about 400 acres. Nott expected the property to soar in value thanks to its proximity to New York City and the unrequited promise of a new naval yard to be built nearby.
Over the years, Nott transferred his own holdings to Union and eventually a trust was established, with Union College receiving a share of the trust’s earnings.
Nott, who served as the college’s president from 1804-1866, had also purchased land in Manhattan, using money he earned for managing a state-sanctioned lottery during the previous decade.
Union also had a stake in land that now holds Rockefeller Center and the Stuyvesant Town apartment complex, according to information provided by the college.
By 1860, the college was the main beneficiary of the trust controlling the land and its profits, according to the Union encyclopedia. During the next decade, the college received significant revenue from the trust, in some years as much as $100,000. By the early 1870s, some Union advocates argued the property should be sold and the proceeds invested elsewhere. Instead, the college’s leaders invested more in the property in hopes of a greater payday in time.
But a financial panic and depression wiped out those hopes, and the 1870 establishment of Long Island City, a new municipality with jurisdiction over the Hunter’s Point property, further complicated the college’s situation. The new city reportedly set purposefully-high property assessments and taxes, and Union was forced to sell some of its property at auction. The trust had also been divided among shareholders, some of whom were troubled by personal financial problems that harmed the trust.
The troubles with the trust fed into the on-campus battles that engulfed part of the presidency of Eliphalet Nott Potter, Nott’s grandson.
Between 1860 and 1883, income from the property accounted for nearly half of the college’s instructional budget through various “Nott Professorships,” according to the encyclopedia. But the property also came at a cost to the college, which invested heavily in improvements to the land. And some potential benefactors may have been turned off by the perception that the land meant the college was financially healthy.
“Until the last of the property had been sold in 1898… it dominated the college’s thinking about finance and hence about the institution’s future,” author Wayne Somers wrote in the Union encyclopedia. “Because the investment was speculative and, moreover, almost constantly entangled in financial, legal and political problems of uncertain outcome, the consequence was that, in the post-Civil War years when the nation’s other major colleges were moving boldly forward, Union was nearly paralyzed.”
Now that same land has become entangled in modern political squabbles as local residents, activists and politicians are joining together to fight Amazon’s development plan and the over $2 billion in tax subsidies to support it. The company plans to build a massive base at the Long Island City property -- a second headquarters, the company has said -- which will house as many as 25,000 employees.