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NYC Businesses Sue Columbia, City to Quash School’s 17-Acre Expansion Plan

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A longtime opponent of Columbia University’s approved plan to build a $7 billion mixed-use community — including nearly 2.6 million square feet of new research lab space — on 17 acres in Manhattan’s West Harlem section has sued the school, the city, and three of its boards in hopes of scuttling the project.
 
Nicholas Sprayregen, president of the Tuck-It-Away regional chain of self-storage centers, contends that approvals granted late last year by the City Council and the Planning Commission should be overturned. Through five business entities that serve as co-plaintiffs, Sprayregen argued that the approvals were based on environmental reports by Columbia consultants that failed to address several key concerns raised by critics of the development.
 
Chief among those concerns, which range from procedural to structural, is the university’s plan to use a slurry wall, or “bathtub,” structure that would serve as the project’s foundation while preventing water pressure from moving walls and basements.
 
“I don’t believe that the city properly examined the following key question: Can the bathtub be constructed and then operated in a way that would protect the facilities, students, and faculty of Columbia, and most important, the surrounding neighborhood, from catastrophic damage?” Sprayregen said March 27 at a press conference announcing the lawsuit.
 
Sprayregen joined lawyers and allies at one of his self-storage centers to announce the filing of the lawsuit, known as Tuck-It-Away Associates LP, et. al, vs. City of New York, et. al (Index No. 104415-08), and available here.
 
The suit was filed March 26, the last day of the four-month period the approvals could be challenged in court. Columbia responded by releasing a one-paragraph statement:
 
“As a matter of general policy, we do not comment on pending litigation. 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,” Columbia stated.
 
Sprayregen and other critics have insisted they do not oppose Columbia building new academic space, but prefer it pursue a smaller scale of development conforming to a land-use guideline developed by Community Board 9 Manhattan, which serves West Harlem, under the New York City Charter.
 
The board’s plan prohibits eminent domain and limits new academic research to a center for clean manufacturing or “Zero Waste Studies.” Columbia has opposed the plan, called 197-a, saying it would allow the university to build only 662,000 square feet of facilities, and no lab space.
 
Columbia was approved late last year to build a total 6.8 million square feet of space, including nearly 2.6 million square feet of new research lab space and 296,201 square feet of support space, all in West Harlem.
 
Columbia has said it needs the new space to compete better with other top-tier research universities for researchers, and to accommodate several growing programs unable to expand within its existing 36-acre campus, in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights section.
 
Among them is the Jerome L. Greene Science Center for Columbia’s Mind, Brain and Behavior initiative, which would find a permanent home within part of the 351,310 square feet of lab space slated to be built in the project’s first phase, which is slated to wrap up in 2015.
 
Columbia’s final environmental-impact statement has touted several economic benefits of its projects: The equivalent of 1,200 construction jobs each year for 22 years; 6,399 permanent jobs, and $2 billion a year in economic activity [BioRegion News, Dec. 17, 2007]. Those numbers have won crucial political support from several elected officials, among them US Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem) and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
 
Litigation Lite
 
While critics of Columbia’s project had promised to sue over the city council and planning commission actions [BioRegion News, Dec. 31, 2007], the litigation announced last week is narrower in scope than the variety of issues raised by opponents in the four years since Columbia first presented its development concept for West Harlem.
 
One key issue raised by critics and omitted from the suit is their view that Columbia should drop its request to the state to use eminent domain to condemn parcels whose owners have refused to sell to the university.
 
Sprayregen is one of three property owners that have refused to sell their land to Columbia. Within the land the school wants to develop, Sprayregen owns four Tuck-It-Away self-storage centers among 15 he has throughout metro New York. While he met in December with Columbia representatives to discuss swapping some of his property for state-owned land, no follow-up talks have taken place. Neither Sprayregen nor the state has sought to contact each other, though he said he would be willing to talk again.
 
If Columbia develops all of the project’s planned 17 acres, Sprayregen estimated, about “75 to 100” employees would lose their jobs between the four self-storage sites and employees at tenant businesses leasing space from him — including a supermarket, a private garage, a pediatric medical practice, and a discount store.
 
Other familiar arguments of Columbia critics not covered in the suit: That the project is too large for the surrounding neighborhood; that it was too likely to inflate property values, forcing residents out of the neighborhood; and that it constituted environmental racism because the predominantly minority West Harlem community would face the brunt of the project’s environmental impacts.
 
But a lawyer for the Sprayregen companies said that these concerns were shelved in favor of the single slurry issue because “we didn’t want to do a scattershot on this. We didn’t want to do these typical, raise-every-issue-on-the-planet lawsuits because that would have taken away focus from one very real issue,” Steven Silverberg, a partner with the White Plains, NY, law firm Silverberg Zalantis, told BioRegion News. The environmental-review focus “is a real issue. Why raise other issues?”
 
In the suit, the Sprayregen companies contend that the planning commission and city council:
  • Failed to take the “hard look” required by state law;
  • Failed to adequately consider alternative development plans;
  • Failed to adequately notify the community of public hearings by not publishing notices in the state Environmental Notice Bulletin; and
  • Improperly deferred to an unspecified later date a detailed review of engineering issues.
New York’s state Environmental Quality Review Act, available here, requires municipalities reviewing land-use requests to take a “hard look” at potential environmental effects, and how developers plan to mitigate them. Municipalities must “certify that consistent with social, economic and other essential considerations from among the reasonable alternatives available, the action is one that avoids or minimizes adverse environmental impacts to the maximum extent practicable, and that adverse environmental impacts will be avoided or minimized to the maximum extent practicable by incorporating as conditions to the decision those mitigative measures that were identified as practicable.”
 
A court can find that a local board took the required hard look even if it disagrees with the board’s ultimate decision for or against a project, said Richard O’Rourke, a member of the White Plains, NY, law firm Keane & Beane PC. “It’s not the court’s province or jurisdiction to second-guess a lead agency, and it will not substitute its judgment for that of a lead agency, provided there’s substantial evidence to support that determination.”
 
Bathtub Brawl
 
Key among engineering issues raised by the Sprayregen suit is Columbia’s plan to build much of the infrastructure for its project — including utilities, parking, and loading areas — within an underground seven-story concrete structure, or “bathtub.” 
 
The bathtub would be approximately seven levels totaling about 2 million square feet, and extend 12 square blocks along the Hudson River from Broadway to the West Side Highway, and from 125th Street to 133rd Street. Plaintiffs faulted the bathtub’s presence in Manhattan Hurricane Evacuation Zone C, under which, according to the city, “residents may experience storm surge flooding from a major hurricane (Category 3 & 4).”
 
In their suit, the plaintiffs said the planning commission “left unresolved how the bathtub would be engineered, the cost of the bathtub, whether it is economically feasible, whether the bathtub would be engineered in a manner that would adequately protect it and the surrounding neighborhood from earthquakes and storm surges” — which they said was increasingly likely due to global warming — “and how the estimated 98,000 truck loads of soil that would have to be removed from the site would impact the surrounding area.”
 
“Eliminating the bathtub eliminates substantial potential environmental impacts without eliminating the ability of Columbia to develop the properties it owns, or to acquire other property in the future,” the suit said.
 

“I don’t believe that the city properly examined the following key question: Can the bathtub be constructed and then operated in a way that would protect [the community] from catastrophic damage?”

Not so, Columbia has countered, insisting that it needs to place infrastructure underground to build a feasible amount of lab space and housing. “The central below-grade service area is critical to meeting Columbia’s need for program space, and it would enhance the above-grade urban environment,” Columbia said in its Final Environmental Impact Statement completed in November.
 
An engineer whose firm is involved in Columbia’s West Harlem development would not discuss the proposed bathtub, but agreed to speak with BRN more generally about such structures, which use slurry walls, which use trenches filled with a mix of water and bentonite clay to keep water out.
 
Raymond Poletto, a senior associate with Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers, said such structures are increasingly being used for infrastructure support in the region’s large-scale construction projects — especially in sites close to a river or existing structures in use, such as building foundations or subways.
 
New York City’s building code gives engineers leeway to use a bathtub design, but requires them to take responsibility for designing and underpinning it.
 
“In New York City, because you have construction adjacent to existing sites, if you dig deeper than a certain depth below an existing foundation, you might have to underpin that foundation,” said Poletto, who is also a trustee of a not-for-profit industry group for deep-foundation construction companies, the Deep Foundations Institute of Hawthorne, NJ. “The slurry wall supports the soil and the adjacent building so that you don’t have to underpin the building.”
 
He said slurry walls are typically built to withstand earthquakes and flooding, and can be credited with preventing at least one disaster: The 980-foot by 520-foot bathtub underneath New York’s former World Trade Center held back the Hudson River, some 200 feet away, from entering the New York City tunnel system during the 9/11 attacks that destroyed its twin towers.
 
But that bathtub, bounded by a 3,500-foot long, three-foot thick slurry wall, required re-support — a task carried out by Mueser Rutledge — since the basement slabs of the old tower were crushed by the falling towers.
 
“It’s an apparent illustration that the walls can be resilient,” Poletto said.
 
Poletto said the cost of constructing the concrete structures in the New York region can range “anywhere from $100 [per square foot] on up.”
 
‘Not Going Away’
 
A key source of opposition to Columbia’s plan, the civic group Coalition to Preserve Community, is not a party to the Sprayregen suit but expressed support for it, and hinted that the university may face additional litigation over its project.
 
“This is just the beginning of our battle against Columbia University’s expansion plan,” Tom DeMott, a retired postal worker and 38-year neighborhood resident who is a CPC organizer, said at the press conference. “This is not going away. This has just started.”
 
Speaking with BioRegion News, DeMott said CPC was hindered by its inability to find environmental attorneys free from conflicts of interest with Columbia, as well as a lack of resources.
 
“It was a basic question of, ’We’re all volunteers. We basically hoped that other people would volunteer to help out in terms of the legal stuff. A lot of the issues that we might like to get out there, we didn’t have the volunteers to do it,’” DeMott said. “While our coalition may have loved to have challenged this environmental impact on a much wider range of issues, we believe that this suit strategically targets a very important aspect, and maybe the essential aspect that would get attention paid to it, so we’re happy.”
 
He said CPC would work to build community support through a demonstration set for March 31 at the gates of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus, another set for April 26 on Columbia’s campus, and an effort to pass out fliers during Columbia’s May 20 graduation ceremony.

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