Before there was a controversial plan to build a 324-foot residential tower in place of a parking lot in the South Street Seaport, there was a controversial plan to clean up the toxic contaminates in the soil beneath that lot.
Before purchasing the site at 250 Water Street in 2018, the Howard Hughes Corporation learned of contaminates such as elemental mercury, petroleum, lead and other semi-volatile organic compounds under the surface of the blacktop – once a site of a thermometer factory. Since then, HHC has been working on a remediation plan as part of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP), which is typically used to revitalize economically blighted communities by offering tax credits to private-sector companies that step in to clean up such sites. But from the start of this process, a group of parents, whose children attend schools neighboring the parking lot, have raised safety concerns and believe HHC has not been as transparent or collaborative as they ought to be.
Two years after HHC discovered those toxins, a sentiment of distrust among those parents – who formed a group called Children First to organize their efforts to keep the developer in check – still remains. And although a remediation plan has yet to be finalized, HHC receiving that approval and breaking ground on the lot is moving closer to reality. With that reality comes a sense of urgency from Children First, who Tuesday held a rally in front of Peck Slip School to make three clear requests of the developer and the state agencies overseeing the cleanup process: to extend the DEC’s public comment period for HHC’s draft Remedial Action Work Plan; for HHC to commit to holding off on beginning its cleanup efforts until its building plans have been approved by the city; and to hold off altogether on construction work to allow the schools continued use of outdoor spaces while COVID remains a particular threat to students under 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
The Remedial Action Work Plan (RAWP), now only a draft, is used to evaluate and recommend remedial actions and applicable technology to address site contamination for DEC Brownfield cleanups. Before it can be approved, it is subject to public scrutiny, but the parents of Children First are frustrated with the timing DEC gave for public comment.
“The DEC decided that the best time to drop a draft Remedial Action Work Plan was on the last day of school year last year... and to end the comment period at the end of the summer, before we can come together as a parent community to convene and to understand what what’s going on here,” said Grace Lee, one of the founders of Children First.
Asking for More Time
The RAWP was first made available for public comment on June 25 and set to expire on Aug. 11. The DEC did extend the comment period by 30 days to Sept. 11, and then again to Sept. 30 after scheduling a public meeting for Sept. 21 to discuss the RAWP with stakeholders. The community, though, is asking for more time.
“It shows a contempt for the public engagement process to blind community members and leaders, while at the same time asking them to weigh in. They can’t do that properly without the plans,” Rep. Jerry Nadler said at Tuesday’s rally. He was joined by city Comptroller Scott Stringer and the Democratic nominee for City Council District 1 Christopher Marte, both of whom also reiterated the interests of Children First. “So I joined the call on the State Department of Environmental Conservation to extend the public comment period for the draft Remedial Action Work Plan to at least October 15.”
A spokesperson for the DEC did not say whether another extension was being considered at this time.
Children First are also appealing to HHC to delay remediation and construction until the developer’s building plan for 250 Water Street has been approved by the city and while COVID remains a threat to students too young to be vaccinated. Currently, the development plan is working its way through the city’s formal land use review process, known as ULURP. The City Planning Commission reviewed the designs for the tower at a public hearing at the beginning of September, and have 60 days from that presentation to vote. If the CPC approves the project, it would head to City Council, where term-limited Council Member Margaret Chin would be a likely vote in favor. These votes could take place before year’s end – which is a timeline much clearer than when the city and its schools might have a better handle on COVID.
“The standards for keeping us safe during this remediation and during this building would be seal the doors, shut the windows, no outside space, no top garden that we have for our kids. That is an exact opposite of what you need to do for our children to keep them safe during COVID,” said Megan Malvern, another Children First founder. “We send them here every day. We make them wear masks at school, we make them socially distant we do everything we can to protect them, and Howard Hughes refuses to wait until we have a better handle on what’s happening to our children in our schools, for no reason other than corporate greed.”
Howard Hughes has directly addressed the requests of Children First, as per an email exchange between Children First and HHC executive Saul Scherl provided to Our Town Downtown.
“We share your desire to remediate the site concurrently with site redevelopment, provided project approvals are received in a timely manner. There may be circumstances where it is prudent to proceed with remediation, in full or in part, independent of an approved development plan, and we reserve that right consistent with our voluntary participation in the BCP,” Scherl wrote in an email in August.
In regard to COVID concerns, Scherl said the developer will working under oversite of both DEC and the Department of Health and take measures to ensure the Seaport community is protected during the work.
“We and our development and construction team will work closely with Peck Slip School and the Blue School to minimize any impact to school operations including access to the adjacent play street,” said Scherl.
Those protocols include implementing emissions and noise reduction measures that exceed code requirements, working under a RAWP and Construction Health and Safety Plan approved by the DEC, and implement a comprehensive site safety program, a spokesperson for HHC elaborated.
“In addition to voluntary participation for the site in the Brownfield Cleanup Program, overseen by the NYS DEC and DOH, the project is subject to a comprehensive environmental impact review, and we will closely coordinate with community stakeholders and all relevant government agencies to ensure public safety and to minimize the temporary effects of construction on the surrounding community,” a spokesperson for HHC said in a statement.
Children First took Scherl’s emailed responses as a rejection of their requests.
“It shows a contempt for the public engagement process to blind community members and leaders, while at the same time asking them to weigh in. They can’t do that properly without the plans.” Rep. Jerry Nadler