HULK STILL LOOMS
By STEVE CUOZZO
April 18, 2006 -- COME the fifth anniversary of 9/11 this September, the hulk of CUNY's Fiterman Hall will yet loom over Ground Zero, looking just as blackened and macabre as it did on Sept. 12, 2001.
The community can thank CUNY's selfishness and the fecklessness of its rebuilding agent, the state Dormitory Authority - and also the "leadership" of Gov. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg.
The latest bad news: The federal Environmental Protection Agency has raised extensive questions about plans to decontaminate the building - a four-to-six-month process that must precede demolition.
CUNY and its Borough of Manhattan Community College have posted a sign on the Greenwich Street side promising a new building by 2009. Eight years to replace a simple 15-story classroom structure? Ridiculous. Yet even 2009 is looking more like wishful thinking than a serious deadline.
For months, Pataki's people have tried to suggest that the tangled ruin would be down this year. Last week, Pataki's Downtown construction-coordination czar, Charles Maikish, told me that work should start "in June," and that a "substantial portion" of the wreck should be down "by year end."
He called back yesterday with a whopper of a revision: The state is now looking at an "October start date," not for demolition, but for five-plus months of decontamination.
Yet even that can't start until the EPA gives its blessing to a detailed takedown plan that has yet to be filed - by a contractor yet to be selected. And there's no telling when final EPA approval might actually be forthcoming.
The gruesome eyesore continues to cast a pall over the area. Standing practically on the front doorstep of Larry Silverstein's new 7 World Trade Center, it scares away tenants even as Bloomberg - who has been scandalously silent about Fiterman Hall - blames Silverstein for the slow leasing.
Silverstein is building a small, attractive public park in front of 7 WTC. But few will want to sunbathe in the shadow of Fiterman's blackened entrails and exposed plumbing.
CUNY finally seems serious about replacing the hall - but it started much, much too late. The job should have been a top priority after the 9/11 attack - yet it went nowhere for four years while CUNY implored the state, city and Lower Manhattan Development Corp for money to cover a brand-new building. (CUNY selfishly refused even to prove that the old hall was beyond saving. Now, after prolonged exposure to the elements, it probably is.)
Enabling CUNY was Pataki's ineffectuality. The governor, who appoints a majority of CUNY's board members, ignored Fiterman Hall entirely until its demoralizing impact on Downtown was described in these pages. Bloomberg has yet to be heard from at all.
CUNY loves to publicize its successes - Chancellor Matt Goldstein even shows up in a TV ad to tout the school's wunderkinds. But it ducks questions on Fiterman Hall, diverting all queries to the state Dormitory Authority, its "agent" in the process.
Last week, the EPA finally replied to a preliminary "remediation and deconstruction" draft proposal filed in January by the state's environmental consultant, a company called AirTek. On Thursday, Maikish optimistically termed the EPA's response "good news" and characterized it as "approval" of the "general methodology" to be used.
But EPA spokesperson Mary Mears told me, "While we certainly are having a very positive working relationship with the folks surrounding Fiterman Hall, neither EPA nor any of its regulatory partners have approved any part of the Fiterman Hall plan."
In fact, EPA's questions on the AirTek proposal ran 36 pages. It found the draft full of inconsistencies and lacking detail about the presence of lead paint, mold and roof contaminants. It disputed AirTek's claim that EPA "lead inspectors" had joined in a floor-by-floor survey of the building, saying that no EPA personnel had participated. It even complained that "many" drawings and diagrams filed by AirTek were "difficult to read" or not legible at all.
Community Board 1 District Manager Paul Goldstein said, "It's incredible to me that after spending all this money on demolishing the building, we haven't yet come up with a safe and secure method of taking it down."
Indeed, despite its own EPA delays, the former Deutsche Bank tower at 130 Liberty St. appears closer to being demolished. Yet Fiterman is a small fraction of Deutsche's size, far less contaminated and highly unlikely to contain human remains (although that has not yet been established with certainty).
Dormitory Authority press officer Claudia Hutton cut through thickets of confusion and red tape to come up with a realistic take on what's really going on at Fiterman Hall.
Hutton said that last December, the authority "pre-qualified" a half-dozen prospective contractors to take down the hall. It told them to submit bids by April 21 - but last week extended the deadline to May 9 to allow bidders more time to put their offers in, and also to evaluate the EPA response to AirTek's assessment. The authority now hopes to choose a contractor and sign a letter of intent by June 1.
Before that contractor can start work, however, it must file its own highly detailed proposal with EPA and wait for approval. And the questions for AirTek must be resolved, too.
"As far as a start date, it's not like there's one written in stone," Hutton said. "But we hope to start on decontamination by late summer or early fall."
Yesterday, Maikish explained the delay until October as allowing a "three-month process period for the EPA." But EPA took three months - twice as long as the Dormitory Authority expected - to respond to AirTek's preliminary plan. The feds are likely to need more time to evaluate the contractor's far more complex proposal, which can't be filed until June at the earliest. Even that best-case scenario would have decontamination still going on well into the new year.
Meanwhile, CUNY's architects, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, are said to be barely at the schematic stage in designing Fiterman Hall's replacement. Partner George H. Miller, listed on the firm's Web site as "principal contact," did not return a call.
It looks like a long winter Downtown.