Friday, March 28, 2008

Sprayregen Brings Up Environmental Issues in Lawsuit Against Columbia

Sprayregen Brings Up Environmental Issues in Lawsuit Against Columbia
By Alix Pianin

After formally bringing a lawsuit against Columbia and the city on Thursday, Tuck-It-Away owner Nick Sprayregen and his lawyers held a press conference at his storage facility to officially announce the legal action. Though he previously focused on rallying against the potential use of eminent domain in Manhattanville, Sprayregen is now also setting his sights on the environmental implications of the University’s planned underground development.

“Tuck-It-Away vs. the City of New York” calls on the New York State Supreme Court to take a “hard look” at Columbia’s two-million-square-foot Manhattanville development that would extend seven stories below the street. As it stands now, the University’s design poses significant environmental risks that the city has not properly considered, according to lawyer and public advocate candidate Norman Siegel.

“Without proper review, a disaster may someday occur,” Sprayregen said. “We are not challenging the overall rezoning.”

The underground plan, known as the “bathtub,” would stretch from 125th Street to 133rd Street, Broadway to 12th Avenue, and would house campus laboratories, a swimming and diving center, business school programs, a Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus depot, and storage facilities.

Sprayregen, Siegel, and attorney Steve Silverberg say that the placement of the “bathtub” on a flood plane and earthquake fault line could pose daunting environmental concerns, including flooding.

The recent focus on the environmental implications of the Manhattanville expansion is a marked departure from Sprayregen’s usual focus on eminent domain. Siegel said that the statute of limitations was about to run out following a Nov. 26 meeting, where the City Planning Commission approved the findings regarding the environmental implications of the bathtub. The four-month opportunity to appeal ran out yesterday, the day they filed their lawsuit.

“My perspective being that environmental laws are put in place to protect the safety and well-being of the community ... I concluded over the weekend that the work up to this point doesn’t comport with the ‘hard look’ requirement,” Siegel said.

Sprayregen and Siegel have also been working with Community Board 9 consultant and director of the Pratt Institute Ron Schiffman and senior researcher Klaus Jacob to study the implications of building the bathtub.

“Our recommendation was that CU should hire an outside risk assessment firm to study the [long term] risks associated with flooding in the face of rising sea level,” Jacob said.

Jacob said that building the bathtub on a seismic fault may mean that water pressure from the Hudson River could proliferate faults on the bottom of the basement, which would be expensive to fix.

Siegel also raised concerns about the engineering mechanisms given by Columbia officials to stave off environmental damage to the buildings. According to Siegel, the mechanisms were too vague to provide sufficient assurance that the facilities would withstand future natural disasters without endangering surrounding areas, yet effective mechanisms are still in reach.

“They essentially said, ‘an engineering solution exists. We will find it and we will provide it at a later date,’” said Silverberg, who is also representing Sprayregen in the case.

The plaintiffs also named CB9 in its lawsuit, though Siegel emphasized that they were seeking no relief from the board, and that CB9 was named as a respondent. He stressed that CB9 has been supportive of a thorough and critical review of the Manhattanville plan.

“Now they have an opportunity to speak consistently,” Siegel said.

Betsy Morais and Joy Resmovits contributed reporting this article.

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