Fences Are Still Up -- What's Going On At Chase Manhattan Plaza?

ChaseManhattanPlazaFences.jpg
Stephan von Muehlen
Six months and counting, the historic landmark is still fenced off.
In January we told you about the fight over Chase Manhattan Plaza, an architectural landmark and one of the few open spaces in Lower Manhattan, which has been completely fenced off for six months.

Back in January, there wasn't any obvious reason for closing off the plaza, a popular lunch spot and home to some significant public art. JP Morgan Chase, which owns the property, wouldn't comment, but security guards on site confirmed that the fencing was there to keep Occupy Wall Street protesters at bay.

A group of open-space advocates called #whOWNSpace questioned whether fear of public protest was a legitimate reason to wall off a publicly-used resource and officially designated city landmark, and challenged the city to make JP Morgan Chase take the fences down.

Nearly two months later, the fences are still up. But that's not to say that nothing has changed.

There's now work going on at Chase Manhattan Plaza. At least, that's the impression you'd get from the handful of flagstones that have been torn up from the plaza and surrounded by orange safety cones. But in the weeks since this apparent work began, there hasn't been much working to be seen. Most days, behind the fences, the plaza is as deserted and silent as it has been since September 15.

ChaseManhattanPlazaCones2.jpg
Francisca Benitez
The deserted plaza, now with safety cones.
"It's possible that they really are doing work, but it's strange that there never seems to be anyone on the site actually working," says Paula Segal, a law clerk at Rankin & Taylor leading the legal efforts of #whOWNSpace "You have to wonder: is this 'work' ever going to be finished? When do the fences come down?"

JP Morgan Chase have so far not responded to requests for comment (we'll update this post when we hear back), but the corporation does have a permit for waterproofing repair work -- a permit filed in 2010, which interestingly includes the terms "No change in use, egress or occupancy."

#whOWNSpace contends that use and egress obviously have been changed by the fencing, and want to know the details of the building permit to find out just what's going on and when the plaza will be reopened.

But when Segal filed a Freedom of Information request to see the plans, she got a letter back denying the request, "on the grounds that, if disclosed, the documents requested
would endanger the life or safety of any person."

Richard Nagan, a Buildings Department expediter who wants the plaza opened, says he was told by the buildings department that Chase Manhattan Plaza is on a list, generated by the New York Police Department, of buildings for which permit plans must be kept secret. We've asked the Department of Buildings about this list, and we'll include their response when we get it.

"It's sort of disturbing," Segal says of the list. "It's basically creating a category of buildings and spaces, some with very rich and powerful owners, that are effectively exempt from any kind of public oversight."

#whOWNSpace has appealed the rejection, and is contemplating legal action to force the disclosure of the building plans.

Previous Coverage:

[npinto@villagevoice.com] [@macfathom]

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