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In South Street Seaport, a contaminated lot becomes a flashpoint for a neighborhood

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The state received some 250 comments on Howard Hughes’ Brownfield application for the land

The 250 Water Street lot functions as a parking garage, the Peck Slip school (pictured in the background) is directly north of the property.
Caroline Spivack/Curbed NY

After a swell of concern over plans to clean up a contaminated block-sized lot in South Street Seaport, officials are in the midst of responding to hundreds of comments before releasing a decision on whether the land is eligible for remediation through a state program.

The Howard Hughes Corporation has applied for inclusion in the state’s Brownfield Cleanup Program after discovering a stew of contaminates on 250 Water Street, including mercury, petroleum, and material used to level land that contains semi-volatile organic compounds. But the site is adjacent to the Peck Slip School, and a cobblestone street that students use as a play area separates the properties—setting off alarm bells for parents who are concerned about their children's safety.

Since plans to clean the lot were revealed, concerns have poured into elected officials’ offices; the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which operates the Brownfield program, has received some 250 comments on Howard Hughes’ application. The mass of comments has spurred state officials to compile what is called a responsiveness summary of all the input it has received, along with feedback from the state, that the agency will release to the public concurrent with DEC’s decision on Howard Hughes’ application.

“In response to community concerns and the number of public comments received for this application, DEC will provide the public with a summary of all comments received and any necessary agency responses,” said Erica Ringewald, a spokesperson with DEC.

The agency expects to release the summary and its decision “as soon as this spring,” according to Ringewald.

Typically, the Brownfield program is used to revitalize economically blighted communities and incentivizes private-sector cleanups with tax credits and other bonuses. If the developer’s application is accepted, Langan Engineering & Environmental Services—which is leading the remediation for Howard Hughes—will conduct a thorough review of the environmental contamination and develop a cleanup plan.

But parents of children at the Peck Slip school, and the nearby Blue School, are skeptical that the project won’t pose a risk to students’ health, since boring into the contaminated earth and carting away debris will happen practically on their doorstep.

“The school is literally right beside this lot. My kid plays next to it every day and I just don’t see how this is going to be safe for him,” said Janice Dickerson, whose son is a third grader at Peck Slip. “What’s to stop the wind from blowing chemicals his way? What’s to stop that from entering his school’s ventilation system? These are things we have to think about.”

Mimi Raygorodetsky, who is leading the remediation with Langan for Howard Hughes, noted that the cleanup is an unusual situation.

“This site is very unique,” Raygorodetsky told locals at a recent meeting, hosted by Howard Hughes, regarding the cleanup. “There are very few schools in New York that take over a street and sidewalk that adjoins an active construction site; that is not to say that mitigation, not only monitoring, but mitigation measures [can’t] be put in place to make a cleanup safe and protective.”

If the lot is accepted into the Brownfield program, Langan would monitor air quality with a series of meters set up around the perimeter of the property to track levels of particulate matter and hazardous vapor. Fresh readings would be sent to those working on the site at 15 minute intervals. Other mitigation measures include installing a high fence around the site; washing trucks before they exit the lot; and sprays, foams, and what is known as a misting system would be used to suppress odors, vapors, and particulate matter.

The city and state have strict rules Langan would need to follow should a Hurricane Sandy-level storm strike the city to ensure contaminates do not flood the neighborhood—this essentially involves removing equipment and any hazardous material stored on the lot and covering anything that cannot be removed.

But residents, especially those who lived through 9/11 and Sandy, are not sold on the plans and want their own independent environmental expert to monitor the site. A cadre of local groups have joined forces to form Seaport Planning and Preservation—made up of Save Our Seaport, residents of the nearby Southbridge Towers, and Children First, a group of mostly Peck Slip parents that formed in response to the cleanup—and have begun consulting environmental experts, according to Eliane Kennedy, the chair of Seaport Planning Preservation.

One consultant advised the group that it may be possible to negotiate an arrangement with Howard Hughes where the developer would pay for an independent expert selected by the consulting firm through funds set aside in an escrow account, according to Kennedy, who would not share the name of the consultant because Seaport Planning and Preservation is in the midst of securing a contract. Saul Scherl, the executive vice president at Howard Hughes, acknowledged that “the community has a right to do that” though he “can’t agree who’s paying for that right now.”

A cleanup at the site is in anticipation of developing the city-block sized lot, which Howard Hughes purchased for $180 million from Milstein Properties last June. The land resides within the South Street Seaport Historic District, meaning that the building cannot exceed 12 stories. But the developer owns substantial air rights at nearby properties that could in theory be transferred to the parking lot—although it would have to go through an extensive land use process and be subject to a vote by the City Council.

Locals have pressed Howard Hughes for specifics on its plans for the parcel and fear a skyscraper looming over the historic neighborhood just as much as the environmental remediation, but the firm is staying mum on plans for the site. Scherl did note that the company aims to begin conversations on future development on the property with Manhattan Community Board 1 in the next two months.

But regardless of what rises on the property, remediation is inevitable, Scherl said.

“We’re going to develop the site, and in order to develop the site, whether it’s 12 stories, whether it’s a parking garage—it doesn’t matter. It has to be tested,” he said.

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that DEC expects to release the responsiveness summary and its decision as soon as this Spring, not by year’s end as state officials initially said.