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Demolition of old Tompkins County Library to go ahead despite environmental concerns


The site of the old Tompkins County Library is set to be demolished as early as next week.
(Photo: staff/ Thomas Giery Pudney)

The demolition of the old Tompkins County Library is set to move forward despite activists' concerns about the possibility of environmental hazards stemming from the plan.

The demolition plan for the old library calls for water to be sprayed on the site to control the spread of dust that could contain asbestos as an excavator dismantles the building. The water runoff would then be gathered before being filtered and sent down storm drains.

"I think we have them on the record saying that the asbestos should be removed before the structure is demolished," Walter Hang, founder of Toxic Targeting, said Monday afternoon. "Then when the building was condemned, they were not obligated to carry out that asbestos removal. We are going to require that (Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick) make sure that the original asbestos removal is carried out."

Hang held a news conference at the building Wednesday afternoon to call on city officials to stick to the original plan he says calls for the asbestos contamination to be contained and removed before demolition moves forward. Hang said that study, done by Delta Engineers, should be followed in any demolition plan.

"Otherwise, demolishing this building for literally weeks on end, with no environmental safeguards, would be shockingly unacceptable given the nearby location of residential homes and nearby intersections," Hang added.

Hang said he wants to see the structural integrity of the building restored temporarily so that all asbestos can be removed prior to the demolition.

The city, however, does not seem to have much recourse if they did choose to intervene in the demolition.

The building was condemned in August after a structural engineer deemed it unsafe. City officials say Delta Engineering had completed their review prior to the second engineer's assessment of the structure.

Under New York state law, a condemned building containing asbestos can be demolished as long as the Department of Labor signs off on the contractor's abatement plan. In this case, the plan to spray down the material to prevent the spread of dust and filtering the subsequent runoff is acceptable. Short of revoking the city's condemnation letter, the city cannot force the developers to stick to the original abatement plan.

The old Tompkins County Library
(Photo: staff/ Thomas Giery Pudney)

Mike Niechwiadowicz, director of code enforcement for the City of Ithaca, said the city has already issued the demolition permit and is waiting to hear from the construction team that ground vibration and air quality monitors are in place, as well as obtaining permits to secure the building with fencing. Demolition could begin as early as next week.

Further, the city walking back the condemnation of the building would have little effect on the outcome. If the building were not condemned, the roof, which has been deemed unsafe by a structural engineer, would need to be removed before the building was demolished. The procedure to remove the roof — wet down the material to control asbestos fibers in the air before the air is vented — is the same demolition procedure proposed by the developers.

"For asbestos abatement where an enclosure is required, the enclosure is vented to the outside air," Niechwiadowicz said. "So again, the same method is being used to control asbestos fibers in the air inside a containment enclosure as is being used to control asbestos fibers in the air for a roof removal containing asbestos, as is being used for demolition of a structure containing asbestos — in every case, asbestos fibers are controlled by wetting down the asbestos."

The redevelopment that will transform the Old Library into senior housing will cover about 86,000 square feet, including parking. (Photo: Travis Hyde Properties)

Delta Engineering, which completed the original assessment of the library's condition, will continue to be involved with the project, monitoring the air around the site, as well as the vibrations emanating from the site that might put other buildings in the area at risk, both of which exceed the standards set by the Department of Labor.

While the city issues the demolition permit, the state Department of Labor is responsible for signing off on the demolition plans. Once the Department of Labor signs off, the city has no choice but to issue the demolition permit.

The building, at the corner of Cayuga and Court streets, was purchased by Ithaca real estate firm Travis Hyde Properties in 2017 from Tompkins County for $925,000.

The project to redevelop the old library into senior housing has gathered steam as Travis Hyde Properties announced in May that they had partnered with senior living provider Bridges Cornell Heights on 67 units of senior housing. The development will offer one-, two- and three-bedroom units covering 86,000 square feet, including parking.

Now that the city has issued the demolition permit, contractors have 30 days to begin work. Once New York State Electric & Gas Corp. terminates electrical service to the building and permits are secured to secure the area with fencing, demolition can begin. Deconstruction is slated to take six to eight weeks.

Travis Hyde Properties did not immediately respond to a request for comment.