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Howard Hughes to cleanup mercury, gas tank from block-sized Seaport lot

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The developer discovered the remnants of a former thermometer factory and an underground tank that leaked petroleum

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In advance of making development plans for a city block-sized lot in the South Street Seaport, the Howard Hughes Corporation plans to remediate mercury and other hazardous waste from the parcel as part of a state cleanup program.

The lot at 250 Water Street—bounded by Peck Slip and Beekman Street to the north and south, and Water and Pearl streets to the east and west—currently functions as a garage, and was snapped up by Howard Hughes in a $180 million deal last June from Milstein Properties, after the latter’s failed efforts to develop the site.

Questions swirled for nearly a year over what the high-powered developer has in store for the lot. After preliminary surveys of the land, Howard Hughes has applied for inclusion in the Brownfield Cleanup Program helmed by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, after discovering the chemical remnants of a former thermometer factory—i.e., mercury—and an underground tank that leaked petroleum.

“Once we’re accepted into the program we will develop a remedial investigation work plan, which will supplement the preliminary data that we already have and it will serve to fully delineate both the nature and the extent of all the contamination,” said Mimi Raygorodetsky, who leads environmental remediation projects with Langan Engineering & Environmental Services, at a Community Board 1 land use meeting on Monday.

The Brownfield program is meant to incentivize private-sector cleanups of contaminated land, especially to revitalize economically blighted communities—Gowanus and Red Hook have a handful of Brownfield sites, for instance. In addition to tax credits, the program also offers developers the boon of release of liability for any contamination that has migrated off of a property when they volunteer. Instead, the Department of Environmental Conservation would pick up the mantle to clear any toxic materials that may have seeped onto nearby parcels.

Howard Hughes aims to voluntarily enter the program and expects the state to accept its application within the year’s first quarter. But even if the developer didn’t opt into the program, New York City would mandate an environmental cleanup through its Office of Environmental Remediation. Either way, the land would be stripped of contamination, but the state program is typically more attractive to builders, according to Raygorodetsky.

“The New York State Program is a bit more robust, it’s a higher level of investigation,” Raygorodetsky told community board members. “I won’t say the level of cleanup is any higher than OER because they’re comparable, but there are a number of reasons developers can opt into the program, a primary one is that once they’re done cleaning up the site they’ll get that release of liability from New York State.”

Langan already completed preliminary environmental surveys in 2014 for the previous owner, which took a close look at the lot and the surrounding area’s history of contaminants. Next, a remedial investigation to test soil, ground water, and soil vapor—vapors in soil gas that can sometimes migrate—was conducted, along with a geophysical survey that is “effectively like pushing a lawnmower that’s actually a metal detector across the site” to find buried materials and objects, said Raygorodetsky.

Investigators discovered “historic fill”—material that’s brought to a pre-development site to effectively level it and prepare it for building—which contains metal and semi-volatile organic compounds, a tank likely left over form a former gas station that had leaked petroleum, and mercury preserved in soil.

If the developer’s application is accepted, Langan will conduct a comprehensive review of the environmental contamination and develop a cleanup plan.

“That work plan will dove tail with any proposed development for this site so that we can ensure that the building will be fully protective of the building and human health and the environment,” Raygorodetsky continued.

At the moment, Howard Hughes does not have any fixed development plans for the site. A spokesperson with the developer did not immediately return a request for comment on additional plans for 250 Water Street.

The South Street Seaport Historic District mandates that buildings may be no more than 12 stories, but the developer owns significant air rights at nearby properties that could be theoretically transferred to the parking lot—including 415,000 square feet from Pier 17 and the Tin Building. Such an action would require a lengthy public review process and a vote by the New York City Council.

In the meantime, parents at the adjacent Peck Slip school are nervous that raucous construction and debris could lead to an unsafe environment for students.

“We have third and fourth graders and we have state tests coming up in spring and it’s really a concern for us. Really loud construction happening across the street [could be] a massive barrier for our kids to perform well,” said Megan Malvern, co-president of the Peck Slip school’s Parent Teacher Association.

Peck Slip, which separates the school from 250 Water Street, is often used as a makeshift playground for students and Malvern fears that the air quality on the lot’s perimeter could sicken students—although the state requires rigorous monitoring for such cleanups.

“DEC is not going to allow a project to go forward—it’s not going to be permitted—if it puts the school or anyone at risk,” Adam Meister, the senior vice president of development at Howard Hughes, told the community board.

Locals have until Feb. 1 to submit comment on the 250 Water Street Brownfield application.