downtownexpress.com
Volume 19 Issue 40 | February 16 - 22, 2007

Questions pile up Downtown as flow of info slows

By Josh Rogers

With the new governor on the W.T.C. block keeping his Downtown plans close to the vest, frustration is mounting over the lack of information.

Officials told Community Board 1 Monday that the long-delayed demolition of the former Deutsche Bank building on 130 Liberty St. will begin at the end of February or in early March, but they were unable to answer questions about the spiraling costs or on how they could possibly meet their goal of finishing the floor-by-floor takedown by the end of the year, as they said they would.

The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s board voted to spend another $40 million on the project Wednesday, bringing the estimated cost to $247 million, almost double the original estimate to buy, clean and demolish the building. Kevin Rampe, the L.M.D.C. chairperson, did not hold a press conference after the meeting, as is the board’s usual practice and his spokesperson did not respond to interview requests. The 8 a.m. meeting was listed as “tentatively scheduled” on the public authority’s Web site the night before.

Three months ago, an estimated 200 community groups scrambled to meet an L.M.D.C. deadline to submit applications for $45 million that was promised to Lower Manhattan two years ago. The applications are still sitting around and have not yet been reviewed.

One official involved in the rebuilding discussions, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said a review panel for the federally-funded grants is ready to meet now, but it is being held up by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who shares control of the L.M.D.C. with the city. “We would like to get the Spitzer folks moving on this stuff,” he said, referring to the grants and other Downtown projects.

Catherine McVay Hughes, vice chairperson of Community Board 1, said of the grant applications: “Yes, I’m annoyed. The community fought for these funds.”

Avi Schick, whom Spitzer hired to be president of the Empire State Development Corporation, the L.M.D.C.’s parent agency, said in a brief telephone interview that “We are committed to moving forward on the review” of the community grant applications, although he did not say when this would begin.

During his campaign last year, Spitzer called the L.M.D.C. an “abject failure.” Schick, whose appointment was announced two months ago, attended the L.M.D.C. meeting Wednesday and declined to comment on whether the agency looked like a failure up close or on how much longer it would stick around. “I’m not going there at all,” he said.

The federally-funded, state-city authority was created by Gov. George Pataki at the end of 2001 to manage the rebuilding efforts. In the fall, the L.M.D.C. announced it would be closing in a few months having already announced where most of the $2.8 billion that was approved by Congress would go. About $100 million has not been fully allocated yet.

The official involved with rebuilding said the federal Housing and Urban Development department, which must authorize all L.M.D.C. expenditures, does not want the L.M.D.C. to disband while there is still about money floating around.

A HUD spokesperson declined to comment.

Most of the new Deutsche project expenditures -- $30 million – will go to Bovis Lend Lease which is managing the contaminated building’s cleanup and dismantlement and is now slated to get $129 million. A worker contract dispute, now resolved, prompted the latest delay to the Deutsche takedown. The L.M.D.C., the city and the state believe the added fees are unjustified and are reserving the right to sue Bovis for the money when the project is completed.

Charles Maikish, executive director of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, the L.M.D.C.-funded agency taking over the Deutsche project, said his office was not responsible for awarding the contract to a bid that was too low.

“The Command Center had no part in the original estimates,” he told C.B. 1 members Monday. “Maybe you should ask the contractor why they underbid the contract. Their bid set the price.”

Mary Costello, a Bovis spokesperson, said since she did not attend the meeting, she would not comment on Maikish’s “speculation” about the bid. She had no other comment. This is far from Bovis’s first foray into W.T.C. construction politics. The firm’s $972 million estimate for the memorial last year prompted a redesign by others that shaved $285 million off the estimated cost.

Only four members of the L.M.D.C.’s 16-seat board showed up at Wednesday’s meeting across the street from the sunken 16-acre W.T.C. site, although several participated by phone, including Edward Malloy, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council union. He asked Rampe about Deutsche, which the L.M.D.C. bought three years ago.

“Ed, I think we’ve all learned by now not to make any promises,” said Rampe, who first came to the L.M.D.C. five years ago at Pataki’s request. The former governor promised the building would be down in 2005, but it took years for the L.M.D.C. to come up with a demolition plan that passed muster with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Under a new agreement, Bovis would lose $29 million if it is not able to deconstruct the building by Dec. 31. Maikish, head of the construction center, told Downtown Express that Bovis had no incentive to cut corners because his office would be monitoring the firm closely. He said if an environmental problem halted the project, it would not affect the deadline.

Bob Harvey, the construction center’s project manager, told C.B. 1 that currently, the top six stories of the building have been cleared entirely of toxins and the physical removal of the building will begin the first week in March at the latest.

“It’s not a quiet process,” he said of the deconstruction, which involves breaking up large pieces of concrete. “The good news is, it’ll feel so good when it’s done.”

Hughes, who has been one of the leading advocates regarding 9/11 environmental concerns, said that at this point, much of the Deutsche building has been cleaned of toxic chemicals and she is more concerned with the speed of the project than with potential hazards.

“I hope the timeline won’t interfere with” the health concerns, she said in an interview. “I know we need the Deutsche Bank building to come down in a timely manner.”

The hulking black building at 130 Liberty St. is most often described as a “shroud” or a “blight” by residents and rebuilding officials.

To cover Bovis’s extra $30 million, the L.M.D.C. shifted money that had been set aside in an economic development fund. The money was expected to help finance a project south of the W.T.C., known as Greenwich Street South. The plan, which grew out of a 2002 speech on Lower Manhattan by Mayor Bloomberg, never progressed past the preliminary rendering phase.

The idea was to take a difficult pedestrian area near a large, street-blocking parking garage, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the West Side Highway, and redesign it to make it safer, add parks, residential buildings and a garage for commuter buses. The residential buildings would be built on parcels owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is controlled by the governor but has never supported the project. The city had been planning to release a “request for expressions of interest” in developing the sites, but those plans are now on hold.

Under a previous agreement, Deutsche’s insurers are liable for some of the cost overruns. Officials are pursuing that money and hope to also recover money from Bovis and from Deutsche itself — for the costs of cleaning up any environmental hazards that existed in the building before 9/11.

Carl Weisbrod, an L.M.D.C. board member who showed up for Wednesday’s meeting, said afterwards that he remained optimistic that the corporation will be able to get the money needed to do the Greenwich project.
“I hope when we recover the money,” he said, “we’ll use it for Greenwich Street South.”

With reporting by Skye H. McFarlane

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