Westbeth starts work on $40 million project to fight future flooding

Westbeth’s inner courtyard will be a focus of the $40-million flood-proofing and renovation project.

BY LEVAR ALONZO | Westbeth, the renowned Village artists’ haven, will be ready this time when the next superstorm hits. On Aug. 4 work began on the largest construction project in Westbeth’s history, and residents are already seeing scaffolding going up.

More than $40 million from the Build it Back program has been allocated to Westbeth to prevent damage from future storm flooding and mitigate what Superstorm Sandy wreaked five years ago on the complex’s basement space, which housed many of the artists’ works and equipment.

Formerly home to Bell laboratories, Westbeth was renovated residentially from 1968 to 1970, when it opened as affordable artists’ housing. A cobbled-together complex of 13 buildings with 383 apartments, it covers a full square block between Washington, Bethune, West and Bank Sts. Westbeth is cited as the first example of adaptive reuse of industrial buildings for artistic and residential use.

“Westbeth is a bastion of affordability in what has unfortunately become one of the most expensive real estate markets on the planet,” City Councilmember Corey Johnson said. “We must do everything in our power to ensure its permanent survival, and that includes making sure it’s protected from future storms like Superstorm Sandy. This resiliency project is a big win for the people of Westbeth and it shows what can happen when government and communities work together.”

The Build It Back project is overseen by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, but the funding is coming from the federal government. The money is to help prevent what happened during Sandy from occurring again, or at least lessen the impact.

“Build It Back made a commitment to our waterfront communities, one we continue to honor,” Amy Peterson, the director of Build It Back, said in a statement. “Tremendous progress has been made… . [Homes] will be safe, resilient, and better able to face the next storm.”

The Build it Back program began in 2013, before the start of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first term. As of this past June, 74 percent of construction on affected homes and properties had been completed, and work had started on 92 percent of the remaining projects.

H.P.D. reviewed Westbeth’s condition and needs, and — after a lengthy process, involving Westbeth, architects, engineers and consultants — determined that the work was ready to start. Between now and mid-2019, the project calls for the development’s boilers and hot-water storage tanks to be raised, an emergency generator to be installed, the basement windows to be waterproofed and high-capacity sump pumps to be installed to expel any water that gets past the windows and doors.

“One of the points we tried to make was that this project is very complicated, and that much planning and scheduling remains in flux,” Westbeth officials said in a statement.

Also, as part of the project, in the inner courtyard, all lead-based paint will be removed, along with asbestos-containing material around the windows.

The project’s first step is scaffolding going up around the building’s eastern portion, which is hoped to start in mid-September.

The next phase is internal work — heating, electrical and plumbing, which would not have a noticeable effect on residents.

The final phase, which will be the most disruptive, is the replacement of the steel holding up the inner courtyard.

“At some point, the steel is likely to fail, creating a very dangerous situation,” Westbeth officials wrote in a report to tenants. “Build it Back will replace all of the steel. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to do this.”

The general plan for the work is that it will proceed from the complex’s top floors downward, and start on the courtyard’s east side. Work on the courtyard’s west side should begin in early October.

“Much of the work will be an inconvenience to many of the residents, especially when the asbestos and lead-based paint have to be removed,” said Steven Neil, Westbeth’s executive director. “Any complaints by any tenants, we will try to deal with immediately.”

To keep residents updated on the project, a town hall meeting is scheduled at Westbeth for Thurs., Sept. 14, and further meetings will be held to share information about the project.