Attorneys argue over blame for 2013 Plaza Towers flood

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For two weeks in April 2013, Grand Rapids suffered what was the worst flood in modern history. Several riverfront properties downtown, including the Plaza Towers building, found their basements filled with water.

The flood in that building is now at the center of a civil lawsuit claiming $17 million in damages.

Plaza Towers is one of the city’s most exclusive apartment addresses, with rents carrying price tags of about $2,000 a month. When the Grand River filled its garage and basement, tenants were told to leave as the city temporarily condemned the place.

A file image shows the emergency response as the basement of Plaza Towers flooded in 2013.

Within months, the building association and owners, as well as the insurance company that paid out $5 million, sued the city. The city immediately said that the lawsuit was without basis because of an agreement it signed with developers in 1989 regarding a sewer line that was already in place when the building was constructed. One judge threw the suit out, but a higher court later reversed that decision, saying the agreement did not cover the damage done in the flood. That sent the case back to Kent County Circuit Court Judge Chris Yates for a trial, which began Monday.

Now, a jury will have to decide who is to blame for the flood. Was it the city’s decision to allow a hole in the flood wall for access to a riverside sculpture park? Or was it bad design approved by the owners?

“The government took action and as a consequence of the government action — in this case, a walkway system that is designed and a storage of water system that they designed that failed — because of that government action, it ended up directing the natural flow of water, essentially the Grand River, right through the Plaza Towers property,” Steve Afendoulis of the Varnum law firm, which is representing Plaza Towers, argued as the trial got underway.

The city’s attorney said the primary problem was the developer’s drainage system.

The attorneys for Plaza Tower and insurance company Massachusetts Bay told the jury that in 1993, an artist complained about the approach to the sculpture park, leading to the decision to eliminate a flood wall and containment system that would have protected the building to up to 612 inches of river height.

“The Grand River was flowing through Plaza Towers property. This wasn’t, ‘It rained and we had water in the basement,’” Afendoulis said. “What this property owner suffered was very different from what anybody else suffered and it was because the city, respectfully, messed up.”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys said the flood reached less than 608 inches — but because of the hole, millions of dollars of damage was done to Plaza Towers, 80 cars were damaged and 1,000 people were evacuated. They said the owners of the building, not the city, ultimately built a wall to contain future flooding.

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A flood gate at Plaza Towers in Grand Rapids. (April 10, 2017)

Attorneys for the city said the building developers were aware of and involved with the decision to cut the hole in the wall for the walkway.

“It always involved the developer’s input — not just input, active cooperation — with respect to that sculpture and walkway system,” the city’s attorney said.

And besides, he added, that hole wasn’t what caused the damage. He said the construction of walls and the system built over the sewer, which predates the building, were the culprits.

“The city was not the cause of unforeseeable damage at Plaza Towers,” he told the jury.

This trial is expected to last two weeks.

**Correction: A previous version of this article included an erroneously attributed quote from one of the attorneys. The quote in question has been removed.

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