Published November 06, 2012

Future cloudy for buildings near water's edge

Scores of commercial and residential towers in downtown Manhattan may reopen only after weeks

[NEW YORK] Many of the soaked towers that poke into the downtown Manhattan sky have dried out. Their lights blink. Their elevators run. The heat is on.

But a far starker and more problematic future persists for scores of commercial and residential buildings that hover near the water's edge, especially those that dot the financial district. Their mechanical and electrical systems destroyed by millions of gallons of water from swollen rivers, they remain weeks or months away from being able to reopen and invite their tenants back.

Some occupants have been told they cannot return until near Thanksgiving. Others have learned that it could be after Christmas, or early next year, or even later.

The full extent of the damage to these buildings, which include major office towers along Water, State and Front streets, remains unclear. Many owners are still furiously pumping out water, some of it contaminated by toxins.

At 125 Maiden Lane in Lower Manhattan, a 17-story building not far from the East River, a disaster recovery company official said it would be months before it could reopen. Like many other buildings in the vicinity, he said, it was flooded and would need new transformers, boilers and other equipment.

Tenants include the United States Fund for Unicef and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

The offices of The Jewish Daily Forward occupy the eighth floor. Samuel Norich, the publisher, said he was allowed into the building for about a half-hour on Friday to retrieve servers and hard drives. He said water marks on the lobby's white marble walls reached two to three feet above the floor. Building management, he said, told him that some eight million gallons had been pumped out of the basement. "We had prepared for an emergency," Mr Norich said. "The emergency we had prepared for was an act of terrorism, not this."

The afflictions of these wounded buildings have forced major tenants like Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Oppenheimer & Co, Sullivan & Cromwell, Standard & Poor's (S&P) and The Daily News to either pursue short-term leases in alternative spaces or crowd into unaffected offices that they already lease in other parts of the city or region. Some businesses were assuming temporary quarters at the MetroTech Center in Brooklyn.

People unable to get back into residential buildings found themselves imposing still more on friends and relatives, or contemplating short-term sublets.

At 200 Water Street, a big apartment tower, residents were told on Sunday that the building would not be fully operational for at least two weeks, and perhaps much longer. They were advised to find interim housing elsewhere.

"Some of the buildings will clearly not be able to let people in, simply because of the damage to the equipment," said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York. "I've heard that it could be a number of weeks in some cases."

A business leader briefed by the city and the utilities said that about 100 buildings south of Chambers Street would be opening and have electrical power but no steam, meaning they would have no heat or hot water. Other buildings with, or close to, flooded parking garages have a more serious problem. Most are older office and residential structures on the East River at the southern tip of Manhattan, and buildings on the western tip near the Hudson River.

Because cars and other vehicles were submerged, petrol, oil and other chemicals poisoned the waters that entered the buildings. As a result, the buildings themselves will have to undergo special clean-ups before people are allowed in. These clean-ups could take weeks.

The large residential building at 2 Gold Street in the financial district has contaminated fuel oil in the basement, and the doorman and several residents said they had been told it would be at least a month before they could return.

Throughout the financial district, the facades of building after building wore warning stickers from the Department of Buildings. Virtually every building lining the east side of Water Street from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal north to Fulton Street, as well as many others on South Street and Front Street, were marked "restricted use only". On South Street, three old brick buildings bore placards saying, "Unsafe. Do not enter or occupy," with notations declaring them structurally compromised.

At 55 Water Street, where S&P has offices, the "restricted use" sign listed "severe flooding in basement, no fire alarm, no power, damaged face brick at loading dock". On Sunday night, water gushed from hoses that snaked inside the shuttered towers. Workers scrubbed and mopped lobbies.

Brookfield Office Properties, which operates One New York Plaza near Battery Park, where Morgan Stanley is a tenant, estimated that it would be three to six weeks before the building reopens.

There is similar uncertainty at 4 New York Plaza, where The Daily News has its offices, as does JP Morgan.

At 85 Broad Street, where Oppenheimer & Co has offices, floodwaters were not expected to be pumped out until today, and there is contamination from fuel oil. Employees have been told that they may not reclaim the building until around Dec 1.

At 33 Beaver Street, a city official said that ruined electrical systems meant the building would probably not be usable for four to six weeks. Among its tenants are three city agencies, the Department of Probation, the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings and the Department of Homeless Services.

The Department of Buildings has told all real estate owners in the city's mandatory evacuation zone that re-occupation is not allowed until the department inspects a building and issues it a green approval sticker. Alternatively, approval will be granted if the building has power and a licensed professional engineer or registered architect submits a report attesting to its safety.

Many of the residential buildings in Lower Manhattan without heat house significant populations of elderly people, including Smith/Vladeck Houses and Southbridge Towers, a Mitchell-Lama building, according to Julie Menin, former chairwoman of Community Board 1.

Ms Menin has worked with the 92nd Street Y to provide office space at the group's TriBeCa location on Hudson Street for workers whose buildings may still be closed. For buildings without heat, Ms Menin has volunteers delivering blankets and cots to help cope with sinking temperatures. - NYT