The increasingly bitter conflict between Columbia University and Floridita has now spilled over into court.
Ramon Diaz, owner of the popular neighborhood eatery at 125th Street and Broadway, has filed suit against Columbia, alleging that the university is responsible for perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs of asbestos discovered in the building at 12th Avenue and 125th Street where the school has relocated his restaurant.
The Cuban restaurant has become a symbol of the tension over Columbia’s uptown expansion.
“This is nuts! To leave a space with ambient asbestos and then tell you it’s your job to clean it up!,” Diaz tells the Voice. “These people keep on throwing me under the bus. Then I get up, and they throw me under the bus again.”
After two years of tense negotiations, Diaz shuttered his doors last April and signed a lease for the new spot.
But when Diaz began to renovate the site, asbestos was found throughout the building. “The entire floor space is considered to be contaminated with this ACM [asbestos-containing material],” a report by the environmental engineering firm Whitestone Associates says. The majority of asbestos, the report says, is “friable,” the kind that releases the toxic fibers into the air. Later, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection confirmed the presence of asbestos and ordered work halted on the site.
Columbia denies responsibility for the cleanup. In 2007, Columbia renovated the 30,000 square-foot space, which also houses Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Environmental inspections are required by city law, but the school’s hired inspectors did not find asbestos at the time, and Dinosaur moved in.
“Even I am sick of the David vs. Goliath Floridita-fights-Columbia story,” Diaz says. “What I am concerned with is, how many times are they getting away with this? How come my guy can walk in there, review the plans, look at the scope of work, and he can find asbestos loose, ambient, and friable?”