B.S.A. sneaks peek at 60 Hudson, inflaming residents

By Ronda Kaysen

Who would have thought looking at fuel would cause such a firestorm? But when the chairperson of the Board of Standards and Appeals revealed at a hearing Wednesday that she and her colleagues had taken a look at diesel fuel stored in a Tribeca telecom hotel, she did just that.

B.S.A. listened to testimony on Wednesday about an appeal lobbed by a group of Tribeca residents against the Dept. of Buildings. The agency granted the owners of The Western Union Building at 60 Hudson St. a variance for the diesel fuel it stores above ground to power backup generators and cooling systems for the building’s telecommunications tenants. B.S.A., a board of five mayoral appointees, has the authority to overrule a Buildings Dept. decision.

Residents and elected officials have long voiced concern that the fuel stored building-wide — 81,217 gallons — poses a safety risk for the surrounding residential neighborhood, if it were to ignite. The variance only deals with the 6,530 gallons stored above ground.

Lawyers for the residential group, Neighbors Against N.O.I.S.E., did not object to the four current B.S.A. commissioners touring the building; they objected to the process. The agency failed to inform the group’s attorneys of the site visit — or invite them along — and chairperson Meenakshi Srinivasan only revealed that a visit had occurred after Commissioner Christopher Collins referenced a yellow dolly he saw when he visited the building.

“I am shocked that you had a site visit without notifying us or telling us at the beginning,” said Norman Siegel, a lawyer for N.O.I.S.E. “With all due respect, the tone of this hearing has changed [from earlier hearings] and it’s conceivable that the tone has changed because of conversations that took place” between B.S.A. and the owners of 60 Hudson St. “We’re at a disadvantage.”

B.S.A. commissioners insisted they had every right to visit the building and often visit sites while reviewing cases. “It’s an authority that we have and it’s regularly done,” said Commissioner Collins.

Siegel, a civil rights attorney, cited the right to due process under the law in the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. “This is a serious error in judgment,” he said.

The building’s owner, GVA Williams, has long been secretive and private about the goings on at 60 Hudson St. Residents only learned exactly how much fuel was stored in the building at the last hearing in June, after asking for the information for several years. They still know few details about which telecom companies are housed there, why they need all the generators they claim to need and where fuel is actually stored inside the landmark building.

At the hearing GVA agreed to show B.S.A. plans of where the fuel is stored and how it will be transported around the building, but asked that only B.S.A. and Siegel see the documents. “We ask that they not be disseminated,” James Farley, a senior vice president of Stahl Real Estate Company, a partial owner of 60 Hudson St., told B.S.A. commissioners. “It’s not something we want out in the public.”

Siegel requested that at least his co-counsel and clients be permitted to see the plans as well. “I am a big believer in freedom of information,” he said.

In response, Srinivasan suggested GVA provide B.S.A. and Siegel a written statement supporting its argument.

GVA uses the fuel to power backup generators and air conditioning units for their tenants’ powerful telecommunications systems, which provide regional services for a significant portion of the North East corridor. Last year, the Buildings Dept. granted GVA a variance to the city’s 1968 fire code that would legalize existing fuel conditions. Most agree that the fire code is outmoded, but critics worry the variance for 60 Hudson will set a precedent for how telecom hotels are handled in the city.

Although diesel fuel is difficult to ignite, when it does catch fire the ensuing flame can burn uncontrollably. Perhaps the most dramatic example of a diesel-fueled inferno in the city is seven blocks south of 60 Hudson St. where 7 World Trade Center collapsed late in the afternoon on Sept. 11, 2001 because of the diesel fuel it stored. The Western Union Building is about half the size of the original 7 W.T.C. and stores about twice the fuel.

Just last week, a fire at 60 Hudson St. sent the Fire Dept. and Con Edison to the building. Secondary cables beneath the sidewalk caused the one-alarm fire. “It can happen anywhere in the city. It is not unique to that building,” Chris Olert, a Con Edison spokesperson, told Downtown Express.

Tribeca is the fastest growing residential neighborhood in the city, in part because of a concerted effort by the mayor’s office to transform Lower Manhattan into a residential destination.

“Just because the building is there now does not mean that it should be there presently,” Madelyn Wils, a Tribeca resident and the former chairperson of Community Board 1, testified at the hearing. “Don’t we have enough to worry about Downtown? Do we have to worry about this as well? Please consider the safety of the people in this neighborhood. That is what this is about.”

B.S.A. plans to make a decision on the variance Oct. 17.