Chelsea housing co-op powers through grid failure

By Albert Amateau

The blackout that left 50 million Americans without electric power was no problem at all for the 5,500 residents of the Penn South co-op in Chelsea.

Penn South was brightly lit and cool during the 29 hours between 4 p.m. Thurs. Aug. 14 and 9 p.m. the next day, thanks to the co-generation power plant that supplies power, heat and air-conditioning to the 2,820 apartments in the 15-building complex between Eighth and Ninth Aves. from 23rd to 29th Sts.

“It was a normal day at Penn South,” said Brendan Keany, general manager. “I was in the dentist’s chair when the power went out. Thank God it was in one of the professional offices in Penn South.”

The only difference for most residents was that cable television, provided by RCN, failed. Two ground floor retail stores in the complex, Gristedes on Eighth Ave. at 26th St., and Dallas BBQ on Eighth Ave. just north of 23rd St., which are on the Con Edison power grid, also went dark. But other retail stores in the co-op remained open and did a thriving business.

Penn South residents enjoyed their oasis of electricity as their neighbors in Chelsea were among the very last in the city to get their power back up. The lights came on in the rest of Chelsea at 9:03 p.m., according to City Councilmember Christine Quinn.

On Friday, there wasn’t enough specific information in the media about which neighborhoods had their power restored and which were still waiting, Quinn said, leaving residents to wonder and worry about the process.

“When everywhere around you is on and you’re not, it’s hard not to feel you’re being singled out,” Quinn said.

Some Chelsea residents went to Penn South as a refuge. Bob Trentylon said he and his wife, Betty, abandoned their Chelsea apartment the night of the blackout and watched TV with their son Jason in his Penn South pad.

Penn South, completed in May 1962, has generated its own electricity and central heat since 1987 when it built a diesel powered plant. The co-op’s second plant, fueled by natural gas, was completed in 2000. Power, however, did fail for about four hours one Sunday shortly after the second plant came on line as a result of a defective part.

“We’ve replaced the part and we have a backup,” Keany said. “We have enough excess capacity to supply the co-op even if one of the plants fail,” he added.

Seven members of Penn South security staff responded to a call from the 10th Precinct for help directing traffic in the neighborhood. “We had a full crew on hand because some of them couldn’t get home,” said Larry O’Neil, head of Penn South security.

In May, the co-op board approved a $5 million project to replace and expand the 41-year-old cable system that distributes power to the co-op buildings. Work on the project began about a month ago but the existing cables remain in service.

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