Sometimes, the best way to battle Corporate Anxiety Disorder is to give them publicity they may not want.
And the issue is already in the courts, and there was a hearing recently...
July 4, 2012
Suit Seeks Plans for Closed Public Plaza as Owner’s Motives Are Questioned
By COLIN MOYNIHAN
For months, people walking past Chase Manhattan Plaza in Lower Manhattan have gazed upon an empty two-acre expanse surrounded by fences and patrolled by private security guards.
Although the plaza, located a block from the New York Stock Exchange, has been open to the public for decades, tall accordion-style fencing anchored with sandbags was placed around the area in mid-September. The plaza’s owner, JPMorgan Chase, did not issue a statement about closing the site, but some wondered if the decision was prompted by the Occupy Wall Street protests. Organizers had announced plans to hold a meeting in the plaza on Sept. 17, on the first day of the movement, which eventually attracted worldwide attention.
Since then, even as the Occupy protests have trailed off, the fences have remained, and have drawn the attention of critics.
Over the past six months, supporters of open and accessible public space have accused the bank of keeping people out of the plaza without justification. After contractors obtained a permit to put up sturdier fences as part of a renovation plan, one man sued the New York City Department of Buildings over a refusal to disclose the plans. The suit also challenged an assertion by the city that the plans should remain secret because the plaza and the tower next to it are potential terrorism targets.
The legal battle has added to a debate about whether a powerful institution that traces its roots to historic Lower Manhattan put up a fence as part of an effort to forestall criticism of the financial system, then pointed to security concerns to limit speech faulting its actions.
Michael F. Fusco, a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase, declined to comment on any complaints or inquiries about the bank’s actions. He also declined to explain why the fencing was erected in September.
Paula Z. Segal, the lawyer who drafted the lawsuit against the Buildings Department, said security guards at Chase Plaza had told her on several occasions that the fencing was meant to keep protesters from assembling there.
At a recent hearing in State Supreme Court, Justice Paul Wooten suggested that the city should take another look at the plans and see what could be disclosed.
Mark Taylor, a lawyer for Richard Nagan, who sued the Buildings Department, said that the judge had told the city he would not approve “blanket immunity” from freedom of information laws, and proposed that the city redact sensitive information from the plans.
Mr. Nagan, a construction expediter and consultant, said the plans could show whether the bank was carrying out renovations or simply obtaining a series of permits while keeping the plaza off limits.
“The Buildings Department said the only way the public could see the plans would be if the owner gave approval,” he said.
In 1955, when the original plans for Chase Manhattan Plaza were announced, the city granted zoning changes to allow the project to proceed and agreed to permanently close part of Cedar Street to create an uninterrupted site, something that was rarely done to accommodate a private commercial development.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission, in designating the site a landmark in 2009, cited the plaza at the base of the 813-foot glass-and-aluminum tower as “one of the project’s dramatic and distinct features.”
From the earliest days of its planning, the plaza was described as a public space. During a dedication in 1961 to celebrate the tower’s opening, Chase’s president, David Rockefeller, said it had taken “imagination and a sense of citizenship to clear an open plaza on some of the city’s most valuable land and throw it open to the light of the sun — and the public.”
Unlike nearby Zuccotti Park, where the Occupy protesters eventually camped for two months, Chase Plaza has no agreement with the city to stay open 24 hours a day. But Ms. Segal said that depriving people of the use of one of the most significant open areas in Lower Manhattan appeared to violate at least the spirit of landmark rules.
“The general public should be concerned that there is a pre-emptive closing of a historically public space just because the bank that owns it has an inkling that people might want to gather there and talk about what the bank is doing,” she said. She said she began contacting the Buildings Department and the landmarks commission last winter to ask whether the fencing was authorized. City records show that the department did not issue any violations, and that inspectors noted in several reports that no construction fencing existed at the plaza at the time.
The landmarks commission said the fencing did not require the agency’s permission because it was not physically attached to the plaza.
In February, after an article about Ms. Segal’s inquiries appeared in The Village Voice, a contractor obtained a permit to do waterproofing work on the plaza, which the city first approved in 2010. Three days later, another contractor got a permit to surround the plaza with plywood and chain-link fencing. Soon after, Ms. Segal said, workers at the plaza pried up a few pieces of paving but most of the plaza appeared to be unchanged.
Ms. Segal and Mr. Nagan asked to see the renovation plans, citing state freedom of information laws. But the Buildings Department denied their request, and said that sharing the plans “would endanger the life or safety” of the public.
After a second denial, Ms. Segal and Mr. Nagan filed a lawsuit saying that the department was violating freedom-of-information laws by refusing to disclose the plans. The agency replied that Chase Manhattan Plaza was on a Police Department list of sensitive buildings that could be vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
In an affidavit, a police lieutenant said the waterproofing plans contained detailed information about the plaza and the tower beside it and should be kept secret.
On a recent afternoon, several workers in the financial district ate lunch near the sealed-off plaza. One of them, Wendy Smith, 47, from Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, said she remembered the original fencing going up in September.
“I never hear any machinery back there,” she said. “I wonder what’s going on behind this fence.”
© 2012 The New York Times Company