Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

A Big Victim Is Still Empty After a Year
By David W. Dunlap, September 11, 2002

Only the magnitude of disaster a few yards away could have eclipsed the painful story of the former Federal Office Building at 90 Church Street. This imposing one-million-square-foot Art Deco structure was handsomely renovated in the late 1990's by Boston Properties, which holds the master lease. Until Sept. 11, it housed nearly 3,000 employees of the United States Postal Service, the New York City Housing Authority and the Legal Aid Society. Today, it is empty and sealed off. No one knows when it will reopen.

Though it looks undamaged to passers-by, the building was permeated by contaminants, including lead, mercury and asbestos, from the collapse of 7 World Trade Center and the twin towers. "It just rained down and in," said Dan Kessler, general services director for the Legal Aid Society, which had its headquarters and numerous divisions in the top three floors of the 15-story building, completed in 1935.

If there was anything resembling good news that morning, it was that no one who worked at 90 Church Street was killed or seriously injured. Any hope that the building could be quickly reoccupied vanished in the months after the attack, as the degree of contamination became apparent. "Levels of specific contaminants alone are a concern, and combined they form a contaminant cocktail that represents a significant health and liability risk," the Airtek Environmental Corporation said in a report prepared for the Legal Aid Society. Airtek found asbestos, lead dust, fungi, fiberglass dust, heavy metals, mercury, bacteria and decayed organic matter.

Apart from buildings like 1 Bankers Trust Plaza and 90 West Street, which were catastrophically damaged, 90 Church Street is the last of the big office towers around ground zero that remains vacant, according to Insignia/ESG, a commercial real estate company. It is too early to gauge the economic consequences for the building, because it is not yet entirely clear how the structure will be cleaned and who will pay for doing so. There are no property taxes to pay because the building is owned by the Postal Service and leased to 90 Church Street Ltd., an affiliate of Boston Properties, the real estate investment trust.

Boston Properties and the tenants have been working on a cleaning plan and are "very close to an agreement," said Robert E. Selsam, the senior vice president and regional manager of Boston Properties. "We had to develop a clean-up approach from scratch because there is no standard for many of the contaminants we found," he said. "We've taken a very careful, measured and reasoned approach. The last thing I want is somebody back in the building if it's not safe."

The lobby, a luminously memorable space with 20-foot-high green marble columns under a ceiling of translucent glass panels, was used as a temporary morgue after the attack. It has since been cleaned, Mr. Selsam said, and hundreds of broken windows have been replaced.

Reclaiming the tenants' spaces will mean extensive interior demolition, because contaminants have been found behind walls, on ceiling tiles and inside office partitions. The cost will run into the tens of millions of dollars. "Our most important value is the safety and health of our staff, clients and visitors," Daniel L. Greenberg, president of the Legal Aid Society, said. "We've been told by environmental specialists that the only way to be sure of safety is demolition to the walls. It obviously has large and profound insurance implications."

Work might begin this November, Mr. Selsam said, and take about three or four months. After the retesting of the spaces for contaminants, tenants could begin rebuilding their offices, meaning a possible return to 90 Church Street late next summer or early fall. "We would rather do it better than quicker," said David L. Solomon, the Postal Service vice president for the New York metro area. The service operated a post office in the first four floors, with about 850 employees. Contaminants found in the post office space included mercury, lead, cadmium, asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls, said Jamie Cohen, the facility activation coordinator at the Postal Service for the metro area.

As it stands, the Church Street station may not reopen until November 2003. Even that date is tentative, Mr. Cohen said, because it "requires so many time frames and pieces of the puzzle fitting together." Customers at the Church Street station included the tenants of the World Trade Center and World Financial Center, the Parking Violations Bureau and numerous banks and insurance companies, Mr. Solomon said, some of whom receive their mail in five-ton trucks.

Most operations were moved to the James A. Farley Building across Eighth Avenue from Pennsylvania Station. The Housing Authority, by far the largest tenant, occupied nearly 450,000 square feet on seven and a half floors. Some 1,500 to 1,700 people worked in design, construction, finance, human resources, computer services, tenancy administration and housing applications, in the adjudicatory division and welfare employee program and in other fields.

The authority has leased 100,000 square feet of space at 90 Fifth Avenue, at 14th Street. It has also moved employees to its headquarters at 250 Broadway and other existing offices, including 350 Livingston Street in Brooklyn and 23-02 49th Avenue in Long Island City, Queens. It estimates the cost of damages and dislocation from 90 Church Street at $93 million, said a spokesman, Howard Marder. That includes cleaning and rebuilding, replacing lost property and destroyed vehicles, and counseling its employees, many of whom witnessed horrific scenes that morning.

"Initially, the instruction was not to leave," recalled Mr. Kessler of the Legal Aid Society. "People were falling. Pieces of the building were falling. Flaming debris was falling." Part of the jetliner that hit the north tower plummeted to the roof of 90 Church Street, directly over the juvenile rights division, knocking loose the entire suspended ceiling frame. No one was hurt.

Had the attack occurred a bit later, the office would have been full. About 400 people worked in administration, payroll, accounting and human resources and in divisions handling homeless rights, health law, immigration, law reform, civil appeals and death penalty cases. In addition, the society's computer system — 65 servers in all — is at 90 Church Street, linking offices and courtrooms citywide.

Building engineers managed an orderly shutdown of the ventilating and electrical systems, Mr. Selsam said. But the collapse of 7 World Trade Center set numerous fires in 90 Church Street. The sprinkler tanks emptied, filling the structure with water, which coursed down elevator shafts, causing further damage. "Then we weren't able to get into the building for a long time," Mr. Selsam said, "so mold developed and spread everywhere."

With the help of Boston Properties and an emergency generator, the Legal Aid Society was able to jury-rig a power supply to its computers about 10 days after the attack. They have been running since. In midwinter, the society removed 20,000 cartons of material to Linden, N.J., after cleaning it in makeshift decontamination chambers in the elevator lobbies at 90 Church Street.

Employees are scattered in the society's 22 offices, including 49 Thomas Street in Lower Manhattan. Headquarters are in 25,000 square feet at 1 Battery Park Plaza, on a sublease from the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop. The society also plans to take space at 199 Water Street.

Factoring in the expense of stripping the space at 90 Church Street to the slab and rebuilding it, the society estimates the cost of recovering from the attack at $25 million to $30 million, said Theresa de León, the chief operating officer and chief financial officer. "We didn't realize at each step how long it would be," she said. "We thought it would be a matter of six weeks, a short-term issue, that we would be back at our desks by the holidays." They may yet. Thanksgiving 2003.

This article contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my efforts to advance understanding of democracy, economic, environmental, human rights, political, scientific, and social justice issues, among others. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material in this article is distributed without profit for research and educational purposes.

Take me back to learn more