JP Morgan Chase's Life-And-Death Secret Waterproofing Plan

ChaseManhattanFenceMarch.jpg
Francisca Benitez
The plaza is still fenced off, but apparently just why is a state secret.
The ongoing fight to reopen Chase Manhattan Plaza in the Financial District has taken a strange turn.

The nation's biggest bank has undertaken a (possibly imaginary) waterproofing repair project in the plaza. But this is no ordinary (possibly imaginary) waterproofing repair project; this one is so critical, so high-stakes, that the NYPD and the Buildings Department say details of the plan must be kept top secret, because people's lives are on the line.

First, a quick recap: For more than six months, ever since the day before Occupy Wall Street first kicked off, the plaza has been mysteriously surrounded by fencing, closing off the popular lunch spot, historic landmark, and home to significant public art.

It probably comes as no surprise that the bankers at JP Morgan Chase, which owns the plaza, might want to avoid having to wade through ranks of the foreclosed, jobless, and otherwise distasteful 99 percent. If building code allowed, they might dig a moat and raise some battlements to keep the mic-checking hordes at bay.

For months now, a team of open-space advocates has been arguing that even the basic metal fencing that they have put up goes against the rules of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Department of Buildings.

JP Morgan Chase won't comment officially on just why the fences are up, but their security guards will tell you if you ask that the empty plaza is walled off to keep away Occupy Wall Street.

Since the open-space advocates -- a coalition called #whOWNSpace, working with Richard Nagan, a sympathetic Buildings Department Expediter who moonlights playing shakers for George Clinton -- started asking questions, Chase has made a peculiarly half-hearted gesture towards undertaking work on the plaza, perhaps to justify the ongoing presence of the fences.

Working off a 2010 permit to repair waterproofing in the plaza, Chase has torn up a handful of flagstones, conscientiously marking off the scattered work areas with hazard cones and tape.

ChaseManhattanFencesMarch2.JPG
Francisca Benitez
The weird thing about this work -- why there's some reason to wonder if it might be imaginary -- is that since those cones were put up about a month ago, there doesn't seem to be any work going on. In foul weather and in fair, on weekends and weekdays, there isn't any waterproofing going on. It's just the same empty plaza with a handful of orange cones.

Nagan wanted to know just what kind of timeline Chase was working on, so he asked the Buildings Department for a copy of the work plans -- usually a matter of public record. He was refused.

Paula Segal, a law clerk at Rankin and Taylor and a member of #whOWNSpace, tried to move things along with a Freedom Of Information request, but the Buildings Department shot back a denial, writing "it has been determined that the disclosure of the plans for this building, which post 9/11/2011 [sic?] has been designated a 'sensitive building,' may endanger the life or safety of persons." If Nagan wanted to see whether Chase was gaming city government to keep the plaza closed, he was told, he'd have to ask Chase's permission to see the plans first.

The idea that America's most powerful bank is allowed to undertake construction projects without the sort of public oversight that governs everybody else didn't sit well with Nagan, so he's decided to sue. Segal filed the paperwork last week, and motions in the case are scheduled for April 12.

The Department of Buildings did not respond to multiple calls for comment for this story.

We'll keep you updated.

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