Volume 76, Number 42 | March 14 - 20, 2007

Villager photo by Esther Martin

The Henry Street Settlement, which includes the three-story building on the left, hopes to acquire the adjacent, decommissioned, four-story Henry St. firehouse on the right.

Henry St. Settlement puts out call for firehouse

By Brooke Edwards

Though the closing of a firehouse on Henry St. on the Lower East Side stirred little controversy, what to do with the property next has gotten the attention of city councilmembers and congressmembers alike.

The former Engine 15, at 269 Henry St., has been closed since November 2001, when it was combined with Ladder 18 a few blocks away at 25 Pitt St. A variety of reasons have been reported for the closing, but a Fire Department spokesperson said last Wednesday, “When they went in to inspect the property to do some renovations, they found it was too far gone to save.”

The debate over the property began last year, when the Fire Department decided to dispose of the abandoned firehouse. During the lengthy disposition process, involving several city agencies, concern was raised about the former public facility being auctioned and snatched up by developers.

At a City Planning Commission disposition hearing in early February, testimony from Congressmember Carolyn Maloney was presented in which she stated, “The Henry Street firehouse was built as a community resource, and so it should remain.”

The nonprofit Henry Street Settlement, at 265 Henry St., which has shared a wall with the firehouse for more than a century, proposed a solution: give the building to them.

The settlement house has been open since 1893 and provides social services, arts and healthcare programs to more than 100,000 New Yorkers each year.

With the settlement’s programs in increasingly high demand, Catherine Cullen, chief officer for operations, and Kathleen Gupta, chief officer for development and external relations, said during a conference call on Monday that they created a plan for expansion last year, and that taking control of the firehouse was a logical part of that plan.

In addition to using the space to expand their senior citizen- and youth-centered programs, Cullen and Gupta say the firehouse presents the perfect opportunity to install an elevator, giving handicap access to the settlement’s three neighboring row houses and to a building behind the firehouse.

Though the firehouse is not currently landmarked, Henry Street Settlement records show it has been open since 1854 and was active during the Boss Tweed era. Cullen and Gupta said if the settlement acquires the property, they plan to look into having it landmarked.

The building’s condition isn’t a deterrent, Gupta said, since the renovations the Fire Department was facing to accommodate a 5-ton fire engine were far more extensive than what the settlement requires. Though the project will call for extensive fundraising efforts, Gupta said, “We feel that we can take this on.”

Cullen said they’re optimistic the city will transfer the property to the settlement, but added, “I never count on anything until it happens.” She said they are looking into backup locations for their expansion in case things don’t work out.

The City Planning Commission was scheduled to vote on the disposition on Wed., March 14. A source at Planning said last week that it looked as though the vote would come out favorably for the Henry Street Settlement.

If the commission approves the disposition, the firehouse’s fate will rest with the City Council. Councilmember Alan Gerson has expressed his support for community use of the firehouse.

The Henry St. firehouse is one of six scattered throughout the boroughs whose future is being debated. The closure of firehouses in Harlem and Brooklyn sparked protests in 2003. Several of these properties are still slated for auction, where they are expected to bring millions of dollars from residential developers.

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