Friday, March 28, 2008

CU, City Sued Over M'ville "Bathtub" Plan

CU, City Sued Over M'ville "Bathtub" Plan
By Betsy Morais

Nick Sprayregen, the largest private property owner in Columbia’s Manhattanville campus footprint, is picking another battle with the University—he filed a lawsuit today against Columbia and New York City over the University’s planned underground construction.

The “bathtub,” as it is commonly called, is designed to be a contiguous space, running from 125th Street to 133rd Street and from Broadway to 12th Avenue, that extends seven stories below ground level. If built, it will house a swimming and diving center, business school programs, scientific research laboratories, storage facilities, and a below-grade MTA bus depot.

But controversy has surrounded the project because of its placement along an earthquake fault line and near a flood plane which poses various environmental concerns, particularly in combination with the potentially hazardous chemicals used in the campus laboratories.

“If there were a storm surge, you could have water coming out and going into the Harlem community—with possible toxic materials,” said Sprayregen’s lawyer Norman Siegel, who is a candidate for Public Advocate in 2009.

The space was the subject of much scrutiny as Columbia’s land use plan went through the city’s standard zoning review procedure last year. Community Board #9 members and other local activists submitted testimony to the city throughout the process, that questioned the practicality and safety of the bathtub’s construction. Director of City Planning for Manhattan Ray Gastil, who evaluated the environmental impact of Columbia’s proposal for the planning commission’s assessment, presented an alternate proposal in which the University built only a partial bathtub.

But Sprayregen doesn’t think the city addressed the potential implications of bathtub construction thoroughly enough. “The main contention in the suit is that New York City, in its approval of the Columbia rezoning request, failed to carry out its duties as required by law to fully evaluate the serious environmental impacts of the construction and the on-going operation of the proposed ‘bathtub,’” he said in a press release.

It wasn’t until last Friday that Sprayregen decided to file his suit against the University and the city. He said it took him a long time to decide to take action on this issue, with which he had not previously concerned himself.

“The more I read, the more alarmed I really became that not enough independent thought and analysis went into the bathtub approval,” he explained.

Over the past week, Sprayregen and Siegel collaborated with CB9 consultant Ron Schiffman, who is the director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, and spoke with Klaus Jacob, senior researcher at the University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, to better understand the environmental implications of bathtub construction.

Despite his University affiliation, Jacob has voiced apprehensions about the rising sea levels around the bathtub that create flooding risks. Last fall, he met with administrators to recommend the hiring of an outside risk-assessment firm to analyze the possible negative implications of the below ground construction.

But the Environmental Impact Statement for Columbia’s campus development explains how the bathtub “would be designed to resist pressure from both the permanent groundwater levels and temporary flood conditions,” and outlines plans for flood risk analysis, including during potential hurricane flooding.

The University released a statement explaining that, although administrators do not comment on pending litigation: “We are confident that the extended public land use and environmental review processes were rigorous and comprehensive. They underscored that thriving universities are essential for New York City to remain a leader in attracting the talent that pursues new knowledge and creating the good, middle-income jobs for people who seek to improve their lives here.”

CB9 Chair Pat Jones said she had not heard about Sprayregen’s lawsuit, and said that Columbia’s subterranean construction plans have not come up at any recent board meetings.
Still, she called attention to “questions raised by the Community Board and its consultants with regard to the feasibility of Columbia’s proposed bathtub” during the city review process, as to whether or not City Planning took “the appropriate steps, procedures, and due diligence” in assessing the impact of bathtub construction.

Four months after the city approved the University’s campus plan, Siegel said that this lawsuit comes as the window to challenge the Manhattanville rezoning is set to end. He expects to hear back from the city’s lawyers by April 29.

As for Columbia, Siegel said, “I think it is a good university, just wrong on this issue.” But, as he added, that will be up to a judge to decide.

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