By Daniel Katzive
Work is getting underway to remediate a “brownfield” site on the south side of West 96th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue, formerly the location of an MTA electrical substation for the IRT subway, as well as two other buildings.
Those old structures have now been torn down and the plan is to replace them with a 23-story mixed-use commercial and residential building with an affordable-housing component. But first the environmental legacy from the properties’ previous lives must be cleaned up.
Environmental studies of the site have determined there are contaminants in the soil and groundwater that exceed New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) guidelines. The soil at the site was found to contain a range of semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), as well as lead and mercury, earning it a “brownfield” designation, according to DEC’s classification. The developer — Fetner Properties — is undertaking remediation accordingly.
To remediate the problem and make the land safe for development, plans filed with DEC call for excavation down to bedrock, which is estimated at between 3 and 11.5 feet deep, and the removal of 3,800 cubic yards of soil. Contaminated groundwater will be treated as necessary before being discharged into the sewer system.
The MTA substation operated on the property from 1912 to 2005, then sat unused until recently, according to information filed with DEC. It was a striking building, with a limestone facade and ornamentation. The Landmark West website has more information on the building.
The two other buildings on the site were less distinctive in appearance and had a number of purposes over the years. Immediately to the west of the MTA property was a two-story building built in 1951. It was occupied by the Salvation Army from 1973 and, before that, by an upholstery store. The building to its west was originally a single-family dwelling, then sub-divided into apartments, and housed the NAACP’s mid-Manhattan branch from 1978. In between, a number of commercial establishments occupied the space, including a dry cleaner from 1950 to 1968.
The levels of SVOCs were noted to be particularly high in the area below the courtyard behind the Salvation Army building. However, there is no indication that the contamination has affected other properties in the neighborhood, according to DEC reports. Because it has been contained in the soil below the buildings and concrete-covered courtyards, it is not believed to have been posing a hazard to public health.
The MTA power station was likely the source of petroleum contamination in some of the soil. However, the reports do not give a known source for the main pollutants of concern, noting that the SVOC contamination is believed to reflect “the quality of historic fill at this isolated location.” This suggests it could have been brought in from elsewhere during historic construction.
According to the DEC reports, “the historic fill originated from unidentified sources and was placed as backfill at an unknown time, prior to site development.” The dry cleaning operations dating back to the 1960s are not believed to be responsible for the contamination.
A visit to the site in recent days showed that the old buildings have been demolished and workers are removing brick and rubble. Excavation and remediation work has not yet begun, but is set to commence shortly, according to the DEC.
Officials with the DEC told the West Side Rag “the work will look similar to a standard construction site, with added air monitors and personnel monitoring the soil characterization and off-site disposal.” The agency “will be receiving daily reports from the field team and will be making periodic visits to the site to ensure that all protective measures outlined in the approved Remedial Action Work Plan are being implemented to protect public health and the environment during the remedial activities.”
Residents and workers in the area who want to know more about the site and the work underway can find fact sheets, and detailed information on the work plan, as well as monthly reports from the environmental engineers undertaking the remediation, on the DEC’s website.