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Volume 77, Number 8 | July 25 - 31, 2007

Villager file photo

The NYC Transit-owned parking lot at Greenwich Ave. and Seventh Ave. S. is a possible site for a 60-foot-tall building that would house a subway fan plant.

Yet another subway plan fans fears in Mulry Sq.

By Albert Amateau

Villagers are bracing for another construction onslaught from New York City Transit, which intends to build an emergency ventilation plant at Mulry Square to serve the Eighth Ave. and Seventh Ave. subway lines.

The project, with an anticipated four-year construction period from 2009 to 2012, follows a similar NYC Transit ventilation plant construction on W. 13th St at Sixth Ave., a block away from the Mulry Square site, that took nearly five years, instead of the anticipated three, and was not completed until early this year.

To make matters worse, the site of the proposed new subway project at the intersection of Seventh Ave. S. and Greenwich Ave. is in virtually the same place where St. Vincent’s Hospital is planning a new medical center up to 20 stories tall on the west side of Seventh Ave. S. and conversion of hospital buildings on the east side of the avenue to high-end dwelling units. The hospital project, in partnership with the Rudin Organization, could begin construction as early as 2010 if rezoning and other city approval processes begin in the coming year or so.

“Put the two of these projects [St. Vincent’s and Mulry Square ventilation plant] together and you have the prospect of massive disruptions in the neighborhood for years to come,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

“This is still very early in the process,” said Brad Hoylman, chairperson of Community Board 2 who attended a July 11 hearing by NYC Transit on the ventilation project. He noted that estimates about how long construction would take are seldom reliable. “Part of the problem is whenever you dig up a street, you don’t know what you’re going to find,” he said. Referring to the five-year-long 13th St. project, Hoylman said, “Wherever they dug, they found something that delayed the project.”

NYC Transit anticipates that the biggest impact on the neighborhood would be in 2009, the first construction year of the Mulry Square project, when it expects above-ground construction to be completed.

The NYC Transit scoping document for a draft environmental impact statement proposes nine options as sites for the plant: six street-bed locations for underground plants, and three off-street properties for plants that could be either above or below ground or combined above- and below-grade plants.

Ian Dutton, vice chairperson of the C.B. 2 Traffic Committee, said most of the 30 or so people at the July 11 scoping session opposed the street-bed alternatives fearing they would cause the most disruption. Two street-bed alternatives on Perry St. at Seventh Ave. S., one on either side of the avenue, were especially problematic.

“I don’t see how people on Perry St. could get out their front doors,” Dutton said. “Shirley Secunda [chairperson of the Traffic Committee] and I went to look at all the alternatives, and all the street-bed sites appeared to be a tremendous headache for neighbors as well as for street traffic,” he added.

The other street-bed locations include two on Greenwich Ave. (one on either side of Seventh Ave. S.) and two on W. 11th St. (also one on either side of Seventh Ave. S.).

Dutton said the best of the off-street locations, and one that appeared to be favored by NYC Transit representatives at the July 11 hearing, is 61 Greenwich Ave., a triangular lot used for parking and owned by NYC Transit. A chain-link fence around the site is covered with ceramic tiles commemorating the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack.

C.B. 2 has been asking NYC Transit for the past two years to transform the parking lot into a permanent 9/11 memorial park, and the agency’s scoping document acknowledges the possibility: “While it is too early to commit to providing public space in conjunction with this project, it would be our intention to reserve a portion of the site for public use,” the scoping document says.

But that site also has uncertainties. The scoping document says it could accommodate a ventilation plant above or below ground. At the scoping hearing, however, NYC Transit officials responded to a question by Melissa Beldock, G.V.S.H.P. preservation director, saying that if any of the off-street ventilation plants were built entirely above ground, it would result in a building 60 feet wide on each of the two walls facing the street and between 50 and 60 feet tall.

“That’s as big as a six-story apartment house,” said Dutton. “We’re going to have to speak up and soon if we don’t want a plant as big as a house,” he said.

“It looks like the M.T.A. is giving us something with the left hand and taking it away with the right hand. That’s not all that unusual for them,” said Secunda on Monday.

Another off-street option is the so-called St. Vincent’s Garden at 76 Greenwich Ave., the property of St. Vincent’s Hospital located across from its O’Toole Building, the latter which the hospital intends to demolish in order to build its new state-of-the-art medical center. One complication is that the overgrown triangle, which the hospital has indicated could become a public space, has underground storage for oxygen tanks.

But the site, which would have to be acquired by eminent domain, also raises the question of whether use as a subway ventilation plant would have a negative impact on the proposed new hospital.

“I’d love to see St. Vincent’s Garden redone,” Secunda said. “Of course, an above-ground ventilation plant is unacceptable but an off-street site would have no traffic interruption. And if the [NYC Transit] project and the hospital were done at the same time, it might be less disruptive than being built consecutively,” she said.

The other off-street option is 192 Seventh Ave. S., the low-rise corner building where the Fantasy World adult store is located. That site would also require eminent domain acquisition, a cost sure to be an important consideration for NYC Transit.

One site noted in the introduction to the NYC Transit scoping document is “the existing empty ventilation chamber within the subway on Greenwich Ave. near Seventh Ave. if physically feasible.” But the introduction goes on to say, “Because the existing chamber is quite small, there is insufficient room to house the necessary state-of-the-art fans, silencers and auxiliary equipment.” The existing chamber is not included among the alternatives and is not mentioned elsewhere in the 37-page document.

Nevertheless, on behalf of G.V.S.H.P., Berman said in a letter to the NYC Transit, “We strongly urge [NYC Transit] to consider the possibility of alternative sites beyond Mulry Square and its surroundings as well as to consider the possibility of expanding the existing empty ventilation chamber within the subway to accommodate the necessary state-of-the-art fans.”

Berman went on to observe that the neighborhood had been heavily impacted by the W. 13th St. subway ventilation project and that businesses disrupted by that project are still recovering. The Mulry Square area is within the designated Greenwich Village Historic District and has fragile 19th-century houses that could be shaken severely by the one-two punch of the ventilation plant and St. Vincent’s projects. Berman added.

Gary Tomei, a resident of the 100 block of W. 13th St. and member of the block association that endured the 13th St. project, said the association is anxious about the prospects of trucks rumbling down 13th St. — currently a no-truck street — in connection with the combined St. Vincent’s and subway projects.

NYC Transit hopes that a single, new plant can do double duty, minimizing costs for providing emergency ventilation for sections of both the Seventh Ave. and Eighth Ave. subway lines. The ventilation is to comply with new standards for life safety, and a survey of every subway section in the system prioritized them from 1 (most critical) to 252 (least critical). The tunnel section between W. Fourth and W. 14th Sts. on the Eighth Ave. line was ranked 10, while the section between Christopher and 14th Sts. on the Seventh Ave. line has a priority of 179.

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