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Old Library asbestos clean-up under scrutiny


The front steps of the old Tompkins County Public Library, which is slated for redevelopment into a senior citizen-focused housing complex.
(Photo by Casey Martin)

The Old Library redevelopment project, years in the making, may have hit a snag of sorts this week after word got out of the development team's plans to demolish the building.

Though there were previous clean-up proposals that consisted of removing the asbestos before demolition, due to a condemnation order issued by the city in early September. By law, the issuing of that order now allows the developers to propose a plan of demolition without first cleaning up the building, which is what Travis Hyde is now planning. This, however, has ruffled certain neighbors and the environmentalist community who feel that won't be a sufficient plan. The redevelopment proposal, which has been approved, calls for the construction of a housing complex called DeWitt House which would feature 60 units of mid-market rate housing focused on residents 50 and older. Lifelong, the continuing education organization, will also have a significant presence in the project's ground floor.

Frost Travis, of Travis Hyde, said the condemnation was given because of the condition of the building's roof, which he said is "collapsing." That safety hazard, reported by a third party engineering firm hired by the developers, was apparently enough of a threat for the city's Director of Code Enforcement Mike Niechwiadowicz to approve a condemnation order.

"As we found when we had a third party civil engineer evaluate the building, he found it to be unsafe for abatement workers to be in there," Travis said. "The alternative offered to us in the building code, and by DEC regulations as well as Department of Health and Department of Labor was the process of controlled demolition. We knew the building was unsafe, and that we'd be putting workers at risk."

Travis said the controlled demolition process would be paired with an asbestos removal procedure. Essentially, as the building is torn down, the project would be constantly sprayed with water in order to suppress the asbestos-ridden dust. That water is then filtered for particulates, according to Travis, and is then sent down a storm-drain. The pieces of the demolished building are transported off-site in covered trucks.

The demolition site's boundaries will be marked by a construction fence, and upwind and downwind air quality monitoring and testing will be frequently conducted to ensure there's no threat to public health.

Local environmental activist Walter Hang got involved Wednesday as well. He held a press conference outside of the Old Library calling the developer's plan to clean up the site inadequate. Hang said the risks to the environment are too severe to not remove the asbestos first, before demolition. He also pointed to two previous asbestos abatement proposals which dictated that Travis Hyde would be carrying out the asbestos removal of the building's interior prior to initiating demolition.

He was joined by David and Susan Kramer, both of whom live in the neighborhood and are active in the historic preservation community (the project had a prolonged approval process before the Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission, on which David serves). They emphasized how heavily trafficked the area is, stating that they feel the risk of asbestos exposure is too high if demolition is initiated before an abatement process. Local doctor Ken Jaffy also spoke on the situation and specifically to the health impacts of asbestos.

In addition to the press conference, Hang has also organized a letter that he intends to send to Mayor Svante Myrick calling for a full abatement of the asbestos prior to demolition. As of late Wednesday, the letter had 58 signatories, many of whom are from the surrounding neighborhood.

"Given all the asbestos concerns documented herein, we request that you require all ACMs to be removed from the abandoned library without further delay and before the structure is demolished," the letter states. "If the library is demolished for any reason without removing the ACMs, with all due respect we will hold you strictly responsible."

Travis said the development team and the company overseeing the demolition, LeChase Construction, do want this to be a "transparent process" and that LeChase will have an outreach coordinator dedicated to the project. There have been two public information meetings so far, both conducted last week, and Travis said there has been some concern expressed to them by the neighborhood and the DeWitt Park Neighborhood Association. He said more information sessions could be held if the demand exists.

He said they still need a few things before demolition proceeds: for NYSEG to turn off the power to the property (scheduled for this Friday), a demolition permit and a pre-demolition survey to assess the impact on surrounding buildings.