The largest landowner threatened by Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion has filed a suit against the school and city, alleging that the environmental review process for the expansion was insufficient. The process may have even ignored the risk for potential biohazard threats to the West Harlem community, the plaintiff’s lawyer said.
“I think it’s selfish for Columbia, it shows a level of uncaring for the people of West Harlem” said Nick Sprayregen, the owner of Tuck-It-Away Storage, the lead petitioner in the suit, which was filed Wednesday afternoon.
At issue is the construction of a massive underground “bathtub” structure that would extend about seven stories below ground throughout the development, a planned expansion that would include a research facility that the university calls a “biosafety” center, while the plaintiff calls it a “biohazard” center . According to the plaintiffs, the placement of such a structure on a geological fault in a flood zone poses a risk to the surrounding community. But according to Columbia, the research facilities will be built above grade and pose no risk.
“The rim of the bathtub is barely above the Hudson river, we believe it poses a risk of catastrophic failure” said Norman Siegel, Sprayregen’s lawyer. He cited global warming and its connected risks as an issue of serious concern.
“There exists a likelihood of a storm surge that would come over the bulkhead and flood the bathtub” and “hazardous materials from these facilities could be washed out into the West Harlem community” he said.
The suit challenges whether the City Planning Commission took the required “hard look” at environmental hazards for the site. The suit claims that the planning commission “provided that the engineering issues raised during the environmental review process would be resolved at some later unspecified date.”
However, “Neither the engineering consultants… nor Columbia University consultants outline in any detail what those solutions are, what the impact of carrying out those approaches might be” the suit claims in a quote from Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, the chairman of Community Board 9.
Columbia declined to comment on the pending litigation, but said in a statement: “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.”
A Columbia spokeswoman clarified the nature of the research facility, taking issue with the plaintiff’s use of “biohazard. ” “There are no plans to put biosafety facilities below grade,” said the spokeswoman La-Verna J. Fountain.
Sprayregen’s concerns extend beyond the bathtub to the facility itself.
“It just boggles the mind why Columbia, supposedly an altruistic institution, would but a biohazard research center in Manhattan” he said. “I question the wisdom of placing, particularly after 9/11, a biohazard facility that sticks out like a sore thumb for any potential terrorists” in the city center.
“These are bio-safety rooms” Fountain said. “These are not whole buildings, just rooms.”
No matter the result of this current suit, litigation about the Columbia expansion seems bound to continue. The suit filed yesterday is the fifth which Siegel has been involved in, and he sees the potential for at least one other suit. “If eminent domain is used, transferring private property to a private university, we will litigate that issue” he said.
The activist group Coalition to Preserve Community announced a protest for Monday at Columbia. Continued community resistance to the Manhattanville plans has been a driving force for the ongoing legal battle between landowners and the school, and both Sprayregen and Siegel cited community activists as a key factor in their decision to file suit.
“You need the community behind you on this” Siegel said. “Property owners have standing, but the community members were the heart and soul of this lawsuit.”
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 27, 2008