Volume 19 | Issue 23 | October 20- 26, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Elissa Bogos

60 Hudson St. on Tuesday a few hours after the Board of Standards and Appeals ruled the building could continue to store large amounts of diesel fuel on high floors if the owners implement extra fire safety precautions.

Burned by diesel loss, Tribecans begin citywide fight

By Skye H. McFarlane

The Board of Standards and Appeals sparked outrage Tuesday when it upheld a variance allowing a Tribeca telecommunications hub to violate codes on the storage and handling of diesel fuel.

Local activists and politicians spoke out against the decision, vowing that the fight over the 60 Hudson St. building is only the beginning of a larger battle to rezone and regulate New York City’s telecom buildings.

“They’re not going to get away with this for much longer,” Scott Stringer, Manhattan’s borough president, said at a press conference after the decision.

The press conference was coordinated by Neighbors Against NOISE, the Tribeca group that has led the crusade against diesel storage at the landmark 60 Hudson site. The fight began in 2002, when the New York Times revealed that a large quantity of diesel fuel —the amount was later placed at over 80,000 gallons — was being stored in the middle of a residential Downtown neighborhood.

The building, which houses voice and data networking cables for government agencies and technology-reliant businesses such as phone companies, requires diesel fuel to power its backup generators. The generators would keep the technology and cooling systems on line in the event of a blackout.

The noise produced by the generators had already had some neighbors on edge for years when they learned of the fuel storage. Their annoyance turned to alarm when they discovered that the owners of 60 Hudson St. had violated fire codes regarding the diesel. Although all but 6,530 gallons of the fuel are stored below street level, six upper floors of the 25-story building house multiple fuel tanks. Just one tank per floor is allowed by code. The building also fills the tanks by hand, rather than piping the diesel in, as is required by law.

The building applied for a variance and in 2005, the Department of Buildings ruled that 60 Hudson St. could continue with both the above-ground storage and the hand filling, provided that the building install an estimated $5.5 million of additional fire precautions. The agency and the building’s owner, GVA Williams, said the extra measures, which included fire-resistant walls separating the diesel tanks, would make the building safe.

Neighbors Against NOISE appealed the decision to the B.S.A., which held three contentious hearings before issuing its verdict on Tuesday. The vote was 3-0 against the appeal, with new commissioner Dara Ottley-Brown abstaining.

“I think we made a great case,” said NAN president and Community Board 1 member Tim Lannan immediately after the ruling. “I think they made a cynical decision. This decision placed the needs of business over the needs of the community.”

Diesel fuel came to the forefront of the community’s mind after Sept. 11, 2001, when 40,000 gallons of diesel stored at 7 World Trade Center ignited. The fire destroyed the building and continued to burn for months. Local politicians expressed concern that an accident or a terrorist act could bring the same fate to 60 Hudson.

Calling Tuesday’s ruling “beyond contemplation,” U.S. Rep. Jerold Nadler said, “We shouldn’t have to wait for thousands of people to become damaged or sick to do something about this.”

Many of those present at the press conference also condemned the ruling on legal grounds, pointing out that 60 Hudson applied for the variance retroactively and noting that most variances allow developers to break height or use restrictions, not safety codes.

State Sen. Martin Connor, who believes the telecom hub should be moved out of the neighborhood altogether, said, “Is this what we normally do with lawbreakers? Allow a city agency to pardon them?”

The B.S.A. stayed mum on Tuesday, but the board is set to release a full explanation of its decision on Thur., Oct.19. In the meantime, Jeff Mulligan, the B.S.A.’s executive director, issued a statement defending the panel’s ruling.

“The hearing process, which involved three special hearings just for this case, reflects the careful consideration of the terms of the variance and all points raised by appellants, consultants, neighbors and elected officials,” Mulligan said Wednesday.

Although the B.S.A. decision angered activists, the community’s biggest concerns about 60 Hudson — namely the amount of fuel stored there, the proximity of the building to schools and parks, and the noise and fumes created by generators — are all currently outside the B.S.A.’s jurisdiction. A 1915 city law prohibits the sale of propane in buildings near parks or schools, but Buildings has ruled that the law does not apply to 60 Hudson because the building does not sell its fuel.

Lannan said the city’s zoning laws and fire codes are out of date and that NAN’s next battle will be a push to change public policy. Although the group has not ruled out a lawsuit in the 60 Hudson case, most NAN members agree that the problem extends beyond one building.

“We are going to pursue it on a larger scale,” said NAN member Deborah Allen. “We are working with other organizations to influence the codes.”

By Lannan’s count, 63 facilities similar to 60 Hudson exist across the city. He believes that the telecom hotels, with their sensitive high-tech equipment, small staffs and diesel-powered generators, should be regulated by the city as a distinct use group. At the moment, 60 Hudson is zoned as a commercial office building, which allows it to exist in a residential zone. NAN hopes that new codes would force city officials to monitor the telecom hotels and keep them out of highly populated areas, a restriction similar to those placed on heavy industry and manufacturing within the city.

At Tuesday’s press conference, City Councilmembers Tony Avella and Miguel Martinez and an aide to Councilmember Alan Gerson, who was ill, said they were working on legislation to address some of the concerns posed at 60 Hudson, including a more stringent ban on the hand filling of diesel tanks. Avella also said they had the support of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. Quinn’s spokesperson said the speaker was letting Gerson “take the lead” on the legislation and that, as of yet, she had no position on the matter.

Stringer said he also supported new legislation allowing for technological growth in the city while protecting residents.

Lannan was pleased by the strong show of support by politicians from Lower Manhattan and other parts of the city.

“Fortunately, our elected officials get it,” he said. “If in a loss we can bring attention to it and bring about prospective policy changes, then it’s worth it.”

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