Volume 19 Issue 44 | March 16 - 22, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Esther Martin

Henry Street Settlement, left, is on track to acquire an old firehouse, right, from the city to expand its programs. The City Planning Commission approved the plan Wednesday, sending the plan to the City Council for approval.

Henry St. Settlement puts out call for firehouse

By Brooke Edwards

The Henry St. firehouse, which has been empty for more than six years, might soon be filled with old and young alike as the Henry Street Settlement seeks to take control of the building to expand its community service efforts.

The former Engine 15, at 269 Henry St. on the Lower East Side, has been closed since November 2001, when it was combined with Ladder 18 a few blocks away at 25 Pitt St. A variety of reasons have been reported for the closing, but a Fire Department spokesperson said last Wednesday, “When they went in to inspect the property to do some renovations, they found it was too far gone to save.”

Though the closing of the firehouse stirred little controversy, what to do with the property next has gotten the attention of city councilmembers and congressmembers alike. The debate began last year, when the Fire Department decided to dispose of the abandoned firehouse. During the lengthy disposition process, involving several city agencies, concern was raised about the former public facility being auctioned and snatched up by developers.

At a City Planning Commission disposition hearing in early February, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney said, “The Henry Street firehouse was built as a community resource, and so it should remain.”

The non-profit settlement is a community service organization that has been open since 1893 and provides social services, arts and healthcare programs to more than 100,000 New Yorkers each year.

With Henry Street’s programs in increasingly high demand, Catherine Cullen, chief officer for operations, and Kathleen Gupta, chief officer for development, said Monday that they created a plan for expansion last year, and that taking control of the firehouse was a logical part of that plan.

Cullen and Gupta say they would use the space to expand their senior citizen- and youth-centered programs. They also would like to install a much-needed elevator in the former firehouse, which would allow for handicap access to not only the “new” building, but also to the settlement’s three neighboring rowhouses and to a building they own behind the firehouse.

Though the firehouse is not currently landmarked, records show it has been open since 1854 and was active during the Boss Tweed era. Cullen and Gupta said if the settlement acquires the property, they plan to look into having it landmarked.

The building’s condition isn’t a deterrent, Gupta said, since the renovations the Fire Department was facing to accommodate a 5-ton fire engine were far more extensive than what the settlement requires. Though the project will call for significant fundraising efforts, Gupta said, “We feel that we can take this on.”

Cullen said they’re optimistic the city will transfer the property to the settlement, but added, “I never count on anything until it happens.” She said they are looking into backup locations for their expansion in case things don’t work out.

The City Planning Commission voted to approve the disposition on Wednesday. The firehouse’s fate now rests with the City Council.

Councilmember Alan Gerson has expressed his support for community use of the firehouse, and said during a phone interview Wednesday, “I am sure the Council will back me.” He said, “If it’s for a community service organization, I expect that it will be deeded over at little or no cost.”

When asked about Henry Street Settlement’s prospects at getting the property, Gerson said they are still reviewing the changes the settlement plans to make to the building to ensure that it remains compatible with the surrounding area. The group is also working on a development plan for the area and Gerson wants it to include affordable housing. There are no other groups lobbying for the property, Gerson said, and he expects that they will be able to work out the details.

Maloney is also optimistic, saying through e-mail correspondence Tuesday, “It looks like all the parties involved are working toward the same goal and that’s a very good sign. It would be a huge plus for the community if we can preserve an historic building and at the same time give an outstanding organization the room it needs to grow.”

The Henry St. firehouse is one of six scattered throughout the boroughs whose future is being debated. The closure of firehouses in Harlem and Brooklyn sparked protests in 2003. Several of these properties are still slated for auction, where they are expected to bring millions of dollars from residential developers.

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