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
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
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
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
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
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.
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