Group to Sue Port Authority

By Katia Hetter
Staff Writer, Newsday

May 30, 2003, 12:10 AM EDT

A group of Sept. 11 victims' families wants the newest World Trade Center site plans to be declared "illegal, null and void," a danger to lower Manhattan and future rescue workers, according to the draft of a lawsuit against the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and others.

Although the Port Authority has enjoyed immunity from local fire and building safety codes, the lawsuit asks that the agency be ordered to follow those regulations in the redevelopment of Ground Zero. The suit they plan to file Monday claims the agency's role as a commercial landlord isn't protected under the two-state agency's immunity from local codes.

"A government agency that operates a commercial office building should be held to the same standards as the private sector," said attorney Thomas Shanahan, lead attorney on the lawsuit. "There is no reason for immunity to be attached to a commercial landlord. The Port should have no problem with that because they say they meet or exceed the code already."

The lawsuit, to be filed by the Skyscraper Safety Campaign families group, Councilman Alan Gerson (D-Lower Manhattan) and Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights), doesn't ask for any money beyond legal fees. "If you build in the city of New York, you should be in compliance with the building regulations," Sears said. "When you don't have to do it, there's something wrong."

But the lawsuit does seek to require that the redevelopment plans be approved by the New York and New Jersey state legislatures and the New York City Council, and includes other Port Authority commercial buildings such as 111 8th Ave., in the court order.

A Port Authority spokesman declined to comment on the proposed lawsuit, which is also being filed against the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., trade center leaseholder Silverstein Properties, trade center retail leaseholder Westfield Group, Marriott Hotel Services, trade center architecture firm Studio Daniel Libeskind and Brookfield Properties.

"The Port Authority's policy is that we do not comment on pending litigation," said Port Authority spokesman Greg Trevor, who had not yet seen the complaint. He said the Port Authority is committed to meeting or exceeding all city building and fire codes under existing agreement with the city.

The agency can't prove it is meeting or exceeding local code requirements, says Skyscraper Safety Campaign chairwoman Sally Regenhard, who lost her firefighter son, Christian, in the attacks.

"There is no documentation of inspections, the Port Authority doesn't allow the FDNY in [to inspect], so the codes are not enforced even if they do follow them voluntarily," Regenhard said. "That building was a death trap. If we allow the Port Authority to build again with the same immunity to building and fire codes, who's to say they won't build another death trap?"