downtownexpress.com
Volume 19 | Issue 25 | November 3 - 9, 2006

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert
Fiterman Hall

Hopes for 2007 Fiterman demo

By Skye H. McFarlane

There was much venting Monday night when the Borough of Manhattan Community College held the first of what it said will be a series of public meetings on the deconstruction of Fiterman Hall.

While community members expressed concerns over safety and the openness of the public process, B.M.C.C. representatives vowed to learn from and correct the mistakes made in earlier World Trade Center cleanup efforts. When all was said and done, many in the room agreed that the meeting had been a move in the right direction.

“I thought it was a really good first step. I’m really glad we were able to have this,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of Community Board 1’s World Trade Center Redevelopment Committee. “Obviously, there are some issues that B.M.C.C. and CUNY [City University of New York] will have to look at carefully, but we look forward to hearing from them soon.”

The 15-story, 370,000-square-foot classroom and office building, built in 1959, was donated to B.M.C.C. by the Fiterman family in 1994. A multi-million dollar gut renovation of the space was nearly complete when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 occurred. The 30 West Broadway site was badly damaged when 7 World Trade Center collapsed, gashing Fiterman’s south façade and inundating the building with dust and debris. Seven World Trade has since been rebuilt, but Fiterman remains standing and shrouded more than five years after the attacks.

In the spring of 2005, Gov. Pataki said the demolition would begin later that year. Insurance battles, safety concerns and a debate over whether to repair or remove the building have all slowed the process at Fiterman. In January, 2006, the college and its associates (including the Dorm Authority of the State of New York) began a lengthy approval process for the “remediation and deconstruction” — i.e. the thorough cleaning and piece-by-piece dismantling — of the building.

On Monday, the college made its deconstruction plans public so that community members can comment on them before they are submitted to a host of World Trade Center regulatory agencies, a group headed up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The documents, as well as future updates on the project can be found at www.lowermanhattan.info and questions and comments can be directed to fitermanhallinfo@bmcc.cuny.edu.

The college hopes to submit its final plans in mid-December. Once plans are approved, the cleaning and deconstruction process is expected to take 10 to 12 months and cost $16,313,000. A new 15-story classroom building, with a $125 million price tag, will then go up on the site.

Benn Lewis, the vice president of Airtek Evironmental and chief consultant on the project, headed up Monday night’s presentation. He said that the college and its contractors, PAL Environmental Safety Corporation, are working under the assumption that the entirety of Fiterman Hall is contaminated with toxins from the World Trade Center collapse.

Therefore, the current plan calls for the deconstruction of the hall to occur in several stages. First, the post-911 scaffolding and netting would be replaced. The building exterior would be retested for contaminants and re-cleaned where necessary. The interior of the building would be sealed off, then cleaned and emptied in three-floor segments. The roof would be left for last, giving the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner time to search for possible human remains. Last, the building would be taken apart and trucked away.

“I’m happy to have just one item on the agenda, so we can really get into details and answer questions,” Lewis said during his presentation.

If his enthusiasm faded during nearly two hours of pointed questioning, it didn’t show. Lewis kept a professorial demeanor throughout, giving in-depth, if sometimes unsatisfactory, answers to the queries.

The public process was at the forefront of most speakers’ minds, as they attacked what they perceived to be a too-little-too-late notification strategy regarding the meeting. The debate came to a head late in the questions period when two students, including student body president Krystal Garner, stood up to ask why the B.M.C.C. administration had not told students about the meeting.

“I was elected by the students to represent them,” Garner said, eliciting cheers from the audience. “We should be a part of this process.”

When Eduardo del Valle, B.M.C.C.’s vice chancellor of facilities, began to repeat that the college had posted the meeting on its Web site, Vice President of Administration G. Scott Anderson held up a hand to stop him.

“Obviously whatever we did didn’t work,” Anderson said. “I’ll take responsibility. I’m not one to dodge the issue. We have to do better, go the extra mile to make this an open and transparent process.”

Anderson said that B.M.C.C. would give the community more advance notice of future meetings and make sure that faculty, staff and students are informed, probably through an email listserv. Anderson also said that the student body could send a representative to future planning sessions regarding the new classroom building.

Aside from the process, many community members were concerned about toxic dust from the site endangering workers and neighbors.

“After 911, they told us the air was safe,” said Jane Young, chairperson of B.M.C.C.’s professional staff union. “People here have developed a deep distrust and suspicion of the powers that be…regarding our health and safety.”

Lewis tried to allay these fears, saying that the college was working closely with the E.P.A. to alleviate the issues of dust and contamination that plagued the early World Trade Center cleanup. B.M.C.C. is also keen to prevent the type of worker safety concerns that have held up the deconstruction of the Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty St.

“Time has moved on and lessons have been learned,” Lewis said.

In particular, debris at Fiterman Hall will be transported using the building’s elevators, rather than thrown down the elevator shafts. All debris trucks will be sealed and washed before leaving the site and the wash water will be captured and tested for contaminants. Air monitors will be positioned around the site and neighboring buildings (there is already a monitor atop P.S. 234 two blocks away).

If a dangerous spike in contaminants or another emergency, such as a fire, should occur, the site would notify first responders through its emergency action plan, which is currently under review by the city’s Office of Emergency Management.

However, some of the most contentious details at the site—including the method for searching for human remains, the protocols for emergency responders, and the specifics of air monitoring—will not be determined by Airtek’s plan, but rather by regulatory agencies, particularly the Medical Examiner, the N.Y.P.D. and the E.P.A.

For this reason, some community members called for agency representatives to be present at future public meetings. Del Valle said he would work with the Community Board to try to make that happen.

“You have to realize that we have no jurisdiction over these agencies,” Del Valle said. “We will try and endeavor to bring them to the table.”

The E.P.A., for its part, was receptive to the idea, saying that the agency has had a good working relationship with the folks in charge of the Fiterman Hall project.

“It depends upon the nature of the meeting,” said E.P.A. spokesperson Mary Mears. “But in situations where the E.P.A. being there will add to the process, we’ll be there.”

No dates have been set for future public meetings, but students, staff and environmental activists alike seemed eager to read the college’s plans and continue the dialogue.

“I think at the meeting tonight there has been a promising number of requests,” said Kimberley Flynn of 9/11 Environmental Action. “What we heard is that CUNY will try to meet these requests. Whether they do or not will become clear in the future…We need another meeting to continue the public discussion on the quality of their plans.”

Skye@DowntownExpress.com

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