Columbia Ignores Peril

When Klaus Jacob talks, important people take action. Except the important people paying him.

The expansion plans so worried Jacob that he decided it was his professional responsibility to tell someone about it. As he attended public presentations of the plans, he took down the names of the people in charge of each aspect of the project. Armed with those names, he composed a letter on May 4, 2004, and mailed copies to Columbia vice president Mark Burstein, four additional university officials, and some of the project architects at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

Attaching a topographical map to the letter, Jacob wrote that the portion of Upper Manhattan at issue in the expansion plans is located in a valley with low elevations. (This is vividly demonstrated if you travel north on Broadway past Columbia's campus: As you go steeply downhill, you'll see the No. 1 train emerge from the ground and continue on a trestle for several blocks before re-entering the tunnel.) In his letter, Jacob outlined the most current climate-change research on New York's flooding potential. He also wrote that the expansion site might be vulnerable to an earthquake, but he has since dropped those concerns, saying that subsequent engineering plans have resolved that issue.

In the last four years, Jacob estimates that he has spoken with or written letters to about 20 different people on the flood risk facing the expansion. His letters have gone unanswered; meetings haven't been followed up. And at this point, when he attends public discussions where school officials talk up the expansion, he says the reaction in the room is: "Oh, there's that guy again."

Klaus Jacob
Cary Conover
Klaus Jacob
‘I’m trying to convince my own alma mater to do the right thing, and I can’t. And that’s bad news.’
Cary Conover
‘I’m trying to convince my own alma mater to do the right thing, and I can’t. And that’s bad news.’

"It's a low-lying area that, sooner or later, is going to be flooded," Jacob said last week, after finishing a class on risk management in environmental disasters that he teaches at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs.

Jacob is 72 years old, wears red wire-rimmed glasses, and moves with an energetic gait. After class, he sticks around to talk with students, speaking in a noticeable German accent. (He speaks with the measured precision of a scientist and is also wary about speaking to reporters: "Don't make me out to be a martyr," he cautioned.) Jacob came to the U.S. in 1968 as a postdoctoral researcher and has been at Columbia ever since. In that time, he has never applied to be a professor, preferring the position of senior research scientist because it allows him to do more outside consulting and to work more closely with doctoral students.

Though he hasn't spoken out publicly—until now—about his struggle with Columbia, Jacob spends considerable time on the lecture circuit warning the public about what climate change means for the city as a whole. New York is increasingly going to be vulnerable to flooding, and Jacob wants citizens to be prepared. He also serves on Mayor Bloomberg's climate-change panel. But when it comes to Columbia, Jacob has preferred to reach out privately to university officials, expecting—naively, he now realizes—that they would respond.

"The real problem is the whole region," he says. "Columbia is just one speck. It just irks me that I belong to a university that I cannot convince to take the lead."

The country is only starting to come to terms with the realities of climate change, Jacob explains. He says that his conflict with Columbia reveals how difficult it will be to get institutions to shoulder the real costs of disaster prevention. But because Columbia professes to be a leader on the issue—sending Jacob and other experts around the world to consult with governments and industries about climate change—he's especially disappointed that the school doesn't appear to be taking that advice itself.

For three years, Jacob waited for a reply to his initial letter, growing increasingly frustrated at the university's secretive way of going about things. He began bringing up the flooding issue at faculty meetings and attended many of Columbia's open houses. "My original concern was to help Columbia solve its own problem. But for some reason, they weren't interested," he says. "I was naive enough to think that by mentioning something, I could make something happen."

On August 20, 2007, Joe Ienuso, Columbia's vice president of facilities, agreed to meet with him. At that meeting, Jacob explained his concerns and said that Columbia should hire a flood expert to analyze the risk—and make the information available to the public.

Two months later, Columbia released its environmental-impact statement, a document the city planning commission requires when a site is proposed for rezoning. The school had hired Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers, known for its expertise in dealing with environmentally complex urban projects, to do the study. Mueser prepared a special memorandum on flood and earthquake hazards.

It's when he read through the report that Jacob learned for the first time details of the plans for the underground basement—essentially a gigantic bathtub that would stretch eight stories below ground and almost 17 acres across. As large as the World Trade Center basement, it would be one of the largest underground structures in the city. According to a General Project Plan that Columbia issued this past July, the basement facility will house "centralized energy plants to provide heating, ventilation, and cooling, and other mechanical facilities." It could also include goods-distribution facilities, space for recreation, a large parking garage, classrooms, libraries, food-service areas, meeting spaces, and computer labs. The area may even house a bus depot, according to a plan the school supplied at a July eminent-domain hearing. (Columbia spokeswoman La-Verna Fountain, however, tells the Voice that the complex would house a parking garage and a loading dock and said she didn't know about plans to build anything else in the location.)

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