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Open space advocates fighting against the fencing off of Chase Manhattan Plaza in Lower Manhattan will have their day in court next month.
The open space advocates, led by Richard Nagan, an expediter licensed by the Department of Buildings, first raised alarms when JP Morgan Chase erected barriers completely surrounding the historic landmarked plaza the day before Occupy Wall Street began.
But the court won’t actually be hearing the question of whether Chase went through the proper channels before fencing off public art and a historically public plaza for more than seven months. Instead, lawyers will be arguing about when the specter of terrorism can be used justify suppressing information that would otherwise be public.
Chase claims that the fences are up to protect waterproofing repairs underway in the plaza, though there’s been no evidence of work on the site over the last seven months. Nagan wanted to know more. If repairs were really being undertaken, what was the plan? How long would it last? Was JP Morgan Chase complying with the work permit?
But when Nagan filed a Freedom of Information Law request to see the repair plans filed with the city, he was told they were secret. Chase Manhattan Plaza is on a police list of sensitive buildings. If Nagan wanted to see the plans, he was told, he’d have to get the approval of the owners: JP Morgan Chase.
Nagan didn’t like the idea that a property owner could be unaccountable to public scrutiny in this way, even if the owner was a powerful bank. He appealed the decision, and when he was again denied he challenged the denial in court.
The case is scheduled for June 27, and both sides have filed their arguments. The city argues that letting Nagan see the waterproofing plans would pose an unacceptable terrorism risk.
Lt. David Kelly, supervisor of the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Division’s Threat Reduction Infrastructure Protection System, filed his own affidavit in the case. In it, he argues that making building information public is generally dangerous:
“Counterterrorism units such as the NYPD’s seek to limit the detailed information about a potential target that any individual can easily access on the Internet or in any other way in order to flush out such potential perpetrators to where they can be observed…. It is important to the protection of the life and safety of New York City citizens and visitors that petitioner not receive the detailed DOB-approved plans of 26 Nassau Street saught herein because, once public those documents could easily be accessed and distributed by anyone, including anyone wanting to use concealed explosives.”
The plans to repair the plaza’s waterproofing contain very sensitive information, the city argues, “including detailed information about the stairwells and precise locations of the support columns for that building,” as well as the distance between two buildings located in the complex.
Of course, to the extent that the waterproofing plans might actually contain secret information that it would be dangerous to let the public know, there is an obvious solution: release the plans, with the discrete information redacted. Nagan’s legal team advocated just that in a reply filed with the court last week.
We’ll let you know what the judge thinks when the case is heard June 27.