Volume 19 Issue 47 | April 6 - 12, 2007

Downtown Express file photo by Elisabeth Robert

The Survivors’ Stairway in 2006.

W.T.C. stairs may delay steps to middle school learning

By Skye H. McFarlane

As both a preservationist and a public school parent, Community Board 1 member Barry Skolnick never imagined that his two pet projects — saving the Vesey St. “Survivors’ Stairway” and building a new school in Battery Park City — would someday be at odds.

However, after more than a year of lobbying for a school at Site 2B on Battery Pl., members of the community board learned Saturday that Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s Empire State Development Corporation may use 2B as a storage site for the 175-ton World Trade Center artifact. Greeting the news with a mix of shock and outrage, community leaders vowed to use every available avenue to fight the move.

“It feels like a bit of a double cross,” said Skolnick. “We’ll continue to lobby and hopefully we can get them to change. Obviously, we don’t make the final decision. But hopefully we can get our elected officials involved and come up with an alternative site.”

Faced with the city’s fastest growing residential population and acute overcrowding in both of its local elementary schools, P.S. 234 in Tribeca and P.S. 89 in Battery Park City, C.B. 1 has long listed new schools as its top priority for the neighborhood. With elementary school space under construction at two sites Downtown, there is broad agreement that a Site 2B school should include middle school seats.

More than a year ago, Skolnick suggested that C.B. 1 pursue 2B, once slated to become a women’s museum, as a possible school location. Site 2B, the last undesignated plot in Battery Park City, must be used for a community amenity. Until Saturday’s bombshell, the board and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — who has been lobbying Spitzer for the school on 2B — had been repeatedly told by both state and city officials that a deal was imminent to secure the land for school use.

Silver and other Downtowners heard about the surprising development sometime during or immediately after the Jewish Sabbath, which is observed by Silver.

“We learned about this from reading a Daily News article [Saturday],” said C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin. “We immediately voiced our very strong concerns” to E.S.D.C., the Battery Park City Authority and Silver’s office.

Though Silver was unavailable during the week for personal reasons, he expressed his displeasure at the possible staircase move to Spitzer over the weekend.

“Immediately upon learning of the proposed plan to move the staircase to Site 2B, Speaker Silver voiced his opposition to the Spitzer administration,” Silver spokesperson Jim Quent wrote Wednesday in an email. “He explained that doing so could jeopardize plans to build a school at Site 2B to meet the growing need for classroom space in his Lower Manhattan community.”

The fate of the Vesey St. staircase has long been problematic to Downtowners and government agencies alike. The staircase led many Twin Tower workers to safety on 9/11. It survived the W.T.C. collapse intact, but was later heavily damaged during the recovery efforts. Because it is the only remaining above-ground remnant of the original World Trade towers, a number of 9/11 survivors and preservationists believe that it should be left in its current location or, at the very least, be preserved as a whole.

“I view the staircase as a symbol of hope. It’s a sign that people got out,” said Skolnick. “I don’t think it should be eviscerated.”

Skolnick, however, is in the minority at the community board. Because the staircase sits within the footprint of what will become Tower 2 of the new World Trade Center, it must be moved or dismantled to make way for the redevelopment of the site. In January, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation — a subsidiary of the E.S.D.C. — offered up a plan to take the stairway apart while preserving pieces of it in the steps and lobby of Tower 2, as well as in the memorial museum. C.B. 1’s World Trade Center Committee passed a resolution supporting the L.M.D.C.’s plan.

In February, however, the Spitzer administration voiced its desire to reopen the staircase debate. Last Thursday, E.S.D.C. representatives met with community members to present the state’s idea to move and store the staircase while deciding its ultimate fate. According to several board members, Battery Park City was mentioned as a possible location at the meeting, but Site 2B was never specified.

According to spokesperson Errol Cockfield, the E.S.D.C. has not made a “firm decision” about where it will relocate the staircase. He said that the agency plans to consult the community, the mayor’s office and local elected officials before picking a spot. Even if the stairs were stored at 2B, Cockfield said, they would not interfere with the plans to build a school on the site, since the storage would only be temporary. He did not know how long the temporary storage would last, since the E.S.D.C. and its subsidiary, the L.M.D.C., have not yet decided what to do with the staircase in the long run.

“As far as Site 2B is concerned, the top priority ought to be the construction of a school,” said Cockfield.

Community members, however, were highly skeptical of the E.S.D.C.’s assertion that storing the stairs at 2B would not prevent or delay the school construction. Skolnick called the claim “government-speak — as opposed to reality-speak.”

“Even projects with the best of intentions have a way of taking a lot longer than expected down here. Things that are temporary have a way of [lasting],” said Menin. “With every element of the World Trade Center rebuilding, there seems to have been an obstacle and we absolutely cannot let this interfere with building a school in our community.”

According to the E.S.D.C. and the Port Authority, moving the staircase intact would cost about $1 million each time it is moved. Taking the stairway away in pieces would cost “substantially less” than $1 million, said Port spokesperson Steve Coleman. Though the Port Authority will be putting out the bid and picking up the tab for whatever action is taken with the staircase, Coleman said that the Port plans to defer to the L.M.D.C.’s wishes on the matter. So far, there is no hard deadline for when the stairs must be off the Tower 2 site.

“We’ve prepared for whatever decision the L.M.D.C. might make,” said Coleman. “If L.M.D.C. decides it should be moved someplace, we’re prepared to move it.”

Spitzer controls the E.S.D.C. He shares control of the L.M.D.C. with the mayor and control of the Port with the New Jersey governor.

The high cost of moving the stairs has made community members even more wary of the plan to store them temporarily on Site 2B.

“If it’s going to cost $1 million to move it there, then how willing are they going to be to move it again?” said C.B. 1 vice chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes.

Hughes would like to see the stairs located on the empty 140 Liberty St. lot, the former site of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. Putting the stairs there, Hughes said, would keep them close to their original position and under the control of the Port Authority. Menin and Skolnick think that the stairs could also find a suitable temporary home in Battery Park, where the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has already fenced off a large chunk of land for the construction of the South Ferry subway terminal.

Menin said that the E.S.D.C. has agreed to walk through the neighborhood with her to evaluate potential alternate sites. She is still hopeful that there is time to change the agency’s mind.

Skolnick hopes that an alternate site for the staircase can be chosen soon, so that he won’t be forced to pick between two of the issues he cares most about. If forced to choose, however, Skolnick said he’d pick the school without question.

“I don’t think of [the staircase] as a rogue piece of junk,” said Skolnick. “I think the staircase is a historical artifact. It’s significant and I think it should be preserved, but this is not the spot it should be preserved at.”

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