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Soho Buildings To Lose Fire Escapes, Despite Safety Concerns

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A pair of buildings in the Soho-Cast Iron Historic District will lose their fire escapes, despite pleas from several residents who expressed concerns over safety. On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the application to remove the fire escapes from 69 and 71-73 Greene Street, between Spring and Broome streets. The buildings, designed by Henry Fernbach, date to 1877, and the fire escapes are not original to the structures; they were added in the first half of the 20th century.

The proposal, designed by Joseph Pell Lombardi & Associates, includes removal of the fire escapes from both buildings and construction of a new vestibule at 71-73 Greene Street. During his presentation, Lombardi said that Fire Department has reported to the Department of Buildings, which already signed off on the removal, saying it does not present a safety concern, though one resident said she could not confirm that with DOB. Additionally, the two buildings will be connected internally to allow cross-egress and a sprinkler system will be installed..

Much of the discussion amongst the commissioners involved what they actually have a say over and what they are qualified to assess. Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan pointed out that they do not have the jurisdiction, nor the expertise, to rule on issues of safety. That is what the Department of Buildings is for, a point she made when residents spoke up about safety concerns. Commissioner Frederick Bland even referenced the tragic weekend fire that claimed seven lives in Brooklyn in making the point that safety is not the LPC's purview.

So it came down to history and aesthetics. LPC General Counsel Mark Silberman noted that, historically, the LPC has sometimes approved removal of fire escapes from cast iron buildings because it would actually improve their appearance. The commissioners agreed that the buildings will look better without them, thus they approved their removal.

Commissioner Michael Devonshire, however, was concerned about a number of things, including the proposed method of cast iron repair and the fact that they had not presented a plan for restoring the historic cornice. The LPC's approval mandates proper repair of the existing cast iron and that the cornice be reconstructed, though the specifics on that will be handled at the LPC staff level (staff as opposed to the commissioners).

The proposal originally included removal of the fire balconies on the rear of the buildings, but those will be retained. As for the proposed 71-73 Greene Street vestibule, there were no concerns raised by anyone.

Community Board 2 recommended approval of the new vestibule, but not removal of the fire escapes. City Councilwoman Margaret Chin sent a representative to read a statement opposing removal of the fire escapes due to safety concerns. She said that the existing interior stairs "may meet code, they are steep and rickety which incited more alarm than security for the tenants." The Historic Districts Council accepted the removal of the fire escapes, but asked that the fire shutters be retained.

Several residents rose to speak out against the removal of the fire escapes. Patrick Gorman, who has lived there since 1970, referred to a "forest of fire escapes" in Soho. He noted the old nickname the FDNY has for the areas now known as Soho and Noho: "Hell's 100 Acres." He also emphasized that there is a lot of wood in the construction of these buildings. One resident called the buildings "death traps." Another read a letter from the Bureau of Fire Prevention's John Yacovone, which said that Deputy Chief O'Keefe analyzed the situation here and concluded that removing the fire escapes would "place both building occupants and FDNY with an endangerment."

—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Soho Residents Not Thrilled About Losing Fire Escapes [Curbed]
· All Landmarks Preservation coverage [Curbed]