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Old Library demolition to move forward, but activists call for Attorney General investigation


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The old Tompkins County Library will remain condemned after an independent inspection found the building to be a hazard.
(Photo: Thomas Giery Pudney / Staff Photo)

Demolition of the the old Tompkins County Public Library — the subject of asbestos pollution concerns — will begin Dec. 17.

An independent review found the structure unsafe for workers to carry out an asbestos abatement project inside the building. That assessment was made by an independent engineer who was hired by Ithaca after demands from residents and activists concerned about asbestos.

The construction company tasked with the demolition is now preparing the site and plans to begin the razing a week from this Monday.

Tensions surrounding the development of the long abandoned site do not appear to be easing, with several residents asking the state Attorney General's office to investigate the project.

"Asbestos pollution matters are often plagued by corruption and result in toxic pollution hazards," said Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, in a letter to State Attorney General Barbara Underwood. "I request that you make sure the abandoned library cannot be demolished unless all asbestos-containing materials are removed," said Hang, whose Ithaca-based company does environmental research across New York State.

Demolition had appeared set to move forward despite concerns until Mayor Svante Myrick, facing significant public pressure, requested that the building's owner, Travis Hyde Properties, hold off on the planned demolition to allow the city to conduct an independent assessment of the building.

Latest concerns about asbestos in the building were not the first. Air testing in the library in 1983 showed floating asbestos fibers, likely from being sprayed on the building's beams during construction in 1968 — a common building practice outlawed in the 1970s. The library was closed during the massive remediation project (see 1984 news article at end).

In May, Travis Hyde announced plans to partner with senior living provider Bridges Cornell Heights on 67 units of senior housing at the site. The development will offer one-, two- and three-bedroom units covering 86,000 square feet, including parking.

Travis-Hyde Properties presents its plan for demolishing the old Tompkins County Library on Thursday night at Ithaca City Hall. (Photo: Thomas Giery Pudney/Staff photo)

"Seeing first hand conditions at my Nov. 19 site visit, I would fully concur with the finding that the building is a significant safety hazard,” stated Greg Dende of Lansing-based Dende Engineering and Structural Consulting, the independent engineer hired by the city. “Clearly the steel roof deck is corroded through in many locations and should be expected to drop dangerous debris and other building components on the workers below.”

The review's findings aligned with the findings of the initial engineer's report, clearing the way for Gorick Construction, the contractor handling the controlled demolition to begin preparing the site ahead of the tear down.

Mayor Myrick received Dende’s engineering report on Thanksgiving eve and confirmed in emails provided to The Ithaca Journal that the city will not be lifting the condemnation, clearing the last hurdle before the demolition.

The mayor urged Frost Travis of Travis Hyde Properties to “put his mind at ease," asking Travis for more information on how the decision to forgo abatement was made and what further steps would be taken to ensure the public’s safety.

"Gorick Construction is licensed and has been in business since the 1940s. They perform controlled demolitions regularly without incident," Travis wrote in response to Mayor Myrick's email. "Their license is their livelihood — given the close oversight to which they are subject, they have a strong disincentive to cut corners or otherwise disregard the rules and regulations governing asbestos abatement."

Travis Hyde Properties has agreed to do additional air-quality and vibration monitoring in the areas around the site to ensure all hazardous materials are contained. The firm also tentatively agreed to provide the community with written updates as the project proceeds.

Sidewalk fencing is up and the demolition contractor, Gorick Construction, were on-site Monday afternoon. (Photo: Thomas Giery Pudney/Staff photo)

The developer's original plan involved extensive remediation of the building — removing asbestos material in place before demolition.

But as the approval process move forward at a glacial pace, the building remained unoccupied, sliding further into disrepair.

This perceived neglect has lead residents and activists to question why the building, after being purchased, was allowed to fall into disrepair.

Under state law, a structure that is condemned because it is a public safety risk may be demolished in place without first removing any asbestos, allowing instead for an abatement plan that involves air monitoring and spraying down the site during demolition to control the spread of dust.

The remediation necessary to remove the asbestos before demolition, as was initially proposed, could have cost the developer hundreds of thousands of dollars, making the building’s condemnation a desirable outcome for Travis Hyde Properties.

It also spells good news for the city as well, as a building with well-documented and long-running problems was set to be developed and brought back onto the tax rolls, generating revenue and adding to the city's housing stock.

For those reasons, some residents say the city and the developer are putting profit and housing before public safety in allowing the demolition to go forward.

In October, some on the Ithaca Common Council realized a plan to demolish the building without first removing the asbestos was going to be a problem.

On Oct. 15, Ducson Nguyen and Seph Murtagh, both councilors for the 2nd Ward, asked Ithaca Code Enforcement Director Mike Niechwiadowicz for his thoughts on possible ways to force remediation before demolition.

"The building division was concerned about the condition of the building since we knew it was left vacant for a long period of time," said Niechwiadowicz in an email reply to the Common Council members. "A preliminary inspection confirmed those concerns so the new owner, Travis Hyde Properties, had a licensed structural engineer inspect the property. This inspection revealed that there were unsafe structural conditions in the building. At that point the building division took action and condemned the property."

According to activists, the Niechwiadowicz timeline does not tell the entire story.

A copy of the the inspection report from the engineering firm retained by Travis Hyde Properties was sent to the city's building division by Frost Travis on Aug. 23. The letter notes the Aug. 20 report being attached.

But local environmental activist Walter Hang says that he obtained a copy of an earlier version of the letter from the city, not the developer or engineering firm. He contends that the two reports come to opposing conclusions and that the only explanation is the city working to facilitate the buildings condemnation on behalf of the developer.

The two letters, with the exception of the final section of conclusions reached by the engineer, are virtually identical.

The conclusion of the August 8 engineer's report

The conclusion sections do however, appear to reach the same conclusion — that the building's roof is deteriorated to the point that temporarily reinforcing the structure in order to do the abatement was not a viable option. The second letter is much more explicit with the risks the building poses to workers inside.

Walter Hang says that the Aug. 8 letter indicates that the abatement work could have been carried out.

"Since the initial report was not clear about working inside the building I asked a simple question: Is it safe to work inside the building?" said Niechwiadowicz. "I did not dictate to Ryan Biggs how to respond, I simply asked a question. Ryan Biggs decided to issue a revised report dated August 20, 2018."

The conclusion in the second report is much more explicit about the dangers of the library.

"The revised report clearly states that working in the building would put personnel at risk, something that was not clear in the first report," added Niechwiadowicz. "Based on the licensed engineer's report that identified safety concerns with working in the building, I condemned the building."

New York State Building Code dictates that a developer must hire engineers, inspectors and third party inspectors to certify work done by the contractors hired by the developer. Asbestos abatement plans are reviewed by the state Department of Labor.

Niechwiadowicz also said he has the authority to condemn a building unilaterally, meaning there would be no need for him to intervene and request a revised report if condemning the building on behalf of Travis Hyde Properties was the ultimate goal.

"My goal all along was to determine if the building was safe and was it safe to do construction work in the building. I asked for a licensed engineer to evaluate the building for safety reasons," said Niechwiadowicz. "Why do this if all I cared about was to expedite demolition and make asbestos abatement less expensive?"

Local resident Suzy Kramer and Hang have asked the Attorney General's Office to investigate, saying the differing engineer's reports were false instruments used to skirt more rigorous asbestos abatement on behalf of Travis Hyde Properties by the city.

"Five different professionals and/or licensed engineers with years of experience, according to Mr. Hang and Ms. Kramer, are either issuing false reports or are incompetent," added Niechwiadowicz. "I believe that Mr. Hang and Ms. Kramer are so focused on promoting their conspiracy theory that the truth has become a casualty."

Engineer Christopher Latreille, who conducted the site visit and wrote the subsequent report for Ryan Biggs Engineering did not respond to a request for comment.