Volume 19 • Issue 4 | June 9 - 15, 2006

B.S.A. again voices concerns about 60 Hudson diesel

By Ronda Kaysen

Commissioners for the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals raised questions about fuel stored in a Tribeca telecommunications building, at a public hearing on Wednesday.

The hearing was the second in an appeal lobbed against the city by a neighborhood coalition, Neighbors Against N.O.I.S.E. In 2005, the Dept. of Buildings gave the building’s owner, GVA Williams, permission to store 6,530 gallons of fuel spread over six floors of the 60 Hudson St. tower. The fuel, which had been stored illegally until that point, is used to power generators and air conditioning units for telecommunications tenants’ extensive cooling and computer systems. B.S.A., a board comprised of five mayoral appointees, has the power to overrule a Buildings Dept. variance.

“The board would like to have some information that would give us comfort that this build is not being treated differently” from other buildings in the city, said the board’s chairperson, Meenakshi Srinivasan.

Community outcry has mainly surrounded the fuel stored below ground—about 80,000 gallons—that is not subject to city regulation. Residents and local leaders insist the fuel poses a safety risk — and could be a possible terrorist target — in the residential neighborhood because diesel, although a difficult material to ignite, burns furiously once it catches fire.

No other building in the city has received a similar variance, Buildings Dept. counsel Phyllis Arnold told the commissioners, adding, “I don’t know if that amounts to special treatment.”

Arnold was unable to answer commissioner questions about how common aboveground fuel storage of this kind is in the city. The subterranean fuel storage, however, is fairly common, according to F.D.N.Y. chief of fire protection Patrick McNally. “These tanks exist in other parts of the city and we don’t usually have problems with them,” he told commissioners. But, he said having a lot of diesel generators above ground was unusual. “It is a new phenomenon to have people asking for backup generators in places they usually don’t have them.”

Tribeca, once a manufacturing district, has transformed into a booming residential neighborhood in recent years, with the mayor singling it out for residential growth. The building, called the Western Union building, stands directly across the street from the neighborhood’s oldest nursery school, Washington Market School, around the corner from another nursery school called Buckle My Shoe, a block away from P.S. 150, a block north of Duane Park, and in the vicinity of several subway entrances and residential buildings.

At the first hearing about the variance in January, commissioners peppered city officials with several questions, including a tough line of questioning from commissioner James Chin, the commission’s former chairperson.

Questioning was more focused at this hearing, with commissioners voicing concerns about manually transferring the fuel to the above ground tanks, whether 60 Hudson St. sets a new precedent, and how much fuel is actually in the building.

Commissioners pressed the Buildings Dept. and GVA to reveal exactly how much fuel is stored in the Art Deco tower, a fact that has been the subject of much speculation since the public first learned that fuel was stored there in a 2002 New York Times article, with estimates ranging from 70,000 gallons to more than 100,000 gallons. “Knowing the overall quantity of fuel in the building is very important,” said B.S.A. Vice Chairperson Satish Babbar.

Until Wednesday, the city skirted the issue on security grounds, insisting that revealing the information could make a terrorist target out of the building. Even the documents filed with B.S.A. were vague and unclear, according to commissioners.

“We have certainly not meant to mislead or obfuscate,” said Arnold. “We have not by any means meant to instill confusion, cynicism or fear.”

After Arnold’s testimony, James Farley, a senior vice president for Stahl Real Estate Company, co-owner of the building, gave commissioners—and the public—a breakdown of the fuel content of the building.

The tower has a capacity to store 101,521 gallons of fuel, but currently stores 81,217 gallons building-wide, with 6,530 gallons stored above ground, all isolated to the six floors subject to the variance. Farley told commissioners it would cost the owners $5.5 million to comply with the variance, which requires them to implement fire-protection features.

The Buildings Dept. insists the uproar over 60 Hudson has more to do with an outmoded city fire code—it has not been updated in decades—and a changing Tribeca neighborhood, than public safety. “What the neighborhood would like most of all would be for the building to be moved,” said Arnold. “In some ways, this building is a relic, but it’s here.”



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