Sueing the City to Release Building Plans
Preservationists Take Aim in Court At Open Records Law
BY MATTHEW CHAYES – Special to the Sun
April 12, 2007
Preservationists battling a 350-year-old Upper West Side synagogue’s expansion efforts added a new wrinkle to their fight yesterday, asking a state judge to overturn what they say is a citywide ban put into place after September 11, 2001, on releasing blueprints of “sensitive” locations without written permission from property owners.
Landmark West, a 22-year-old nonprofit group, says building plans filed with the city help rally community opposition to projects like Congregation Shearith Israel’s petitions to landmark and zoning boards to put up a school and a condominium behind the landmark sanctuary in a brownstone neighborhood on West 70th Street.
“Transparency is supposed to be a hallmark of the Bloomberg administration, and to respond to a community organization’s request for public documents by saying that we may be terrorists — I mean, it isn’t sound public policy,” the group’s executive director, Kate Wood, said yesterday.
The city calls the non-disclosure of some building plans the “sensitive building policy.” The preservation group filed a lawsuit this week in Manhattan Supreme Court calling the security policy “absurd” and challenging whether the city can deem properties like religious institutions as “sensitive” and restrict access to public records.
“Due to the 9/11 tragedy, the records for the block and lot or address listed in your request are considered ‘sensitive’,” according to a letter from a records clerk excerpted in the suit. “In order to obtain agency clearance to release these records, please forward a letter from the owner/managing agent (on record) authorizing you to have access.”
A spokeswoman for the Buildings Department, Kate Lindquist, confirmed that the city maintains such a policy but declined to elaborate, citing another city policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, federal and state agencies have also more strictly limited which documents they will release under open-records laws.
The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue’s project last year, and a petition for a variance to city zoning laws is pending now. A message seeking comment left yesterday on Shearith Israel’s office answering machine wasn’t immediately returned.