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In Seaport, protesters march against 250 Water St., demand safe cleanup of ‘toxic’ site

BY DASHIELL ALLEN | They were “250 strong” — “250 against 250,” in the words of the protesters against the Howard Hughes Development Corporation’s proposed 24-story, 324-foot-tall tower at 250 Water St.

On Tuesday at 2:50 p.m. a group of concerned parents, children and local activists circled the site of the planned development, which is currently a parking lot.

No, in fact, there were not actually 250 people present, but nonetheless the number’s symbolic meaning was clearly expressed.

“How many people strong are we?” they chanted. “Two hundred fifty strong!”

The protesters ringed the development site at 250 Water St. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Their greatest concern is that toxic waste from the site, which was determined to contain the “neurotoxin” elemental mercury, could put at risk the health of students at three schools directly neighboring it.

They also want to see development that’s in scale with the 11-block South Street Seaport Historic District — meaning no taller than 120 feet.

“This developer is rushing,” Emily Hellstrom, a parent and activist whose child attends one of the schools and whose parents live in the neighborhood, told The Village Sun, “They’re racing at the expense of our community. This development should not happen to begin with, but if for some reason it is going to happen, it shouldn’t happen in a rushed manner.

“These kids play here,” she added, pointing to cobblestoned Peck Street in front of the Peck Slip School. The play street would likely become inaccessible while tons of toxic mercury left over from a long-gone thermometer factory would be removed from the ground through the Brownfield Cleanup Program.

Councilmember-elect Christopher Marte is standing with the opponents and calling for a safe cleanup of the mercury-laden site. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

What opponents slam as a “toxic” development proposal is currently making its way through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

During its opening role in ULURP, Community Board 1 voted no on the plan. But the City Planning Commission next voted to approve the project on Oct. 20, meaning the City Council has 50 days from then to decide on it. As of today, 27 of those days have elapsed.

In a blow to the project’s opponents, a judge on Oct. 5 dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Save Our Seaport Coalition to stop the construction of the $850 million tower.

“The D.E.C. [Department of Environmental Conservation] and [Howard Hughes Corporation] have treated this like it’s a forgone conclusion, and we refuse to back down as parents, to make sure that our kids are going to be safe while they’re in school,” said Grace Lee, whose children attend the neighboring Blue School.

State Senator Brian Kavanagh joined the protest. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Lee and Hellstrom are two founding members of Children First, a grassroots organization that opposes the development of the Water Street site.

“What we want to see happen is a development process and a Brownfield cleanup remediation that takes into account the safety and the health of our children and does not disrupt their learning and education after two years of a pandemic,” Lee stressed.

Grace Lee, who brought her children to the protest, is a co-founder of the group Children First, which is demanding a safe cleanup of the parking lot, which formerly was a thermometer factory. (Photo by Dashiell Allen)

Christopher Marte, the Lower Manhattan councilmember-elect, said, “It’s really disrespectful that our state agencies understand how threatening this is to our children, seniors and community in general, but refuse to do anything realistic about it. It’s a failure of government.

“We have to make sure that we hold our electeds who are going to vote on this ULURP to the fire, and make sure they add every single protection,” Marte added. “As the next councilmember, I’m not going to let Howard Hughes do anything in this district unless they protect our residents.”

“If you accept that this is going to happen, and you accept that you are going to have this area rezoned to have this tall tower, you have to be crystal clear about anything having to do with health and safety,” said Alice Blank, who chairs the C.B. 1 Environmental Committee.

Claudia Ward, a Seaport resident whose child goes to the Peck Slip school, said, “I think it’s an outrage that they’re just pushing forward with what could be a terrible toxic situation for our children. They’re gonna drill holes, possibly into mercury, right here, while school is in session.

“I would like it not to be some megatower that’s just going to make Howard Hughes rich,” she added. “I think that’s an outrage, too.

“It’s an absolute outrage and people need to know about it, get involved and stop them from doing this. It’s shocking.”

A Howard Hughes Corporation spokesperson, in a statement, assured that the cleanup would be done safely and that the project, in addition to a market-rate housing, would include a portion of affordable housing.

“We are committed to the safe and thorough cleanup of the 250 Water St. site, which will occur under the oversight of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health, just as hundreds of similar projects have been safely remediated across the state,” he said. “Throughout that process, we will work closely with the Peck Slip and Blue schools to minimize any impact to operations and ensure a safe learning environment.

“More broadly, we are hopeful that our neighbors will embrace the opportunity to welcome 80 families earning around $45,000 to an area where the median household income is more than $150,000, all made possible through a safe and thorough cleanup and temporary construction period.

“We are pleased that state D.E.C. and D.O.H. have approved our proposed Remedial Action Work Plan, noting that ‘the remedy is protective of public health and the environment,’ and we look forward to implementing that plan under state oversight and in close coordination with the community’s environmental consultant.”

17 Comments

  1. Spencer Berg Spencer Berg November 17, 2021

    Is there any evidence that construction WILL aerosolize mercury or that the developers of incapable of doing this safely? There’s plenty of development around the city that has the same issue but that hasn’t stopped construction from happening. I would understand if people were demanding more affordable housing. But this protest seems dubious in regard to the issue of mercury pollution since the protesters demand that we belive that modern developers, who have developed thousands of industrial sites without issue, will be unable to do it with this one.

    • Mercury is Dangerous Mercury is Dangerous November 17, 2021

      Please name the “plenty of development sites around the city that have all the same issues” as this one.

      Please share the “thousands of industrial sites” that have been remediated like this one, without issue.

      For one, there is NO site that has been remediated like this one. None that have “the same issues.” Contaminated with Elemental Mercury (that was home to the largest production facility of thermometers in the Northern Hemisphere), that is in a flood zone, that is this close to the water and the winds that it kicks up, that is literally feet away from two schools. They can’t come up with similar examples at all. Maybe a site near a school, or maybe a site that has some form of mercury, or perhaps a site that is in a flood zone… . But no, nothing with all of these same issues.

      • LES3025 LES3025 November 17, 2021

        Newtown Creek in Greenpoint and the Gowanus Canal are both Superfund sites (which this location is not). Greenpoint was notably remediated (at least in part) and redeveloped and the same is about to happen in Gowanus. I know you’re going to say that those are different, or that they weren’t remediated, or something like that. But this isn’t something completely novel like you’re making it out to be.

        • Mary Harris-Jones Mary Harris-Jones November 18, 2021

          Your “safe examples” / successful examples — aint so safe

          “Toxic waste dredged from Gowanus Canal goes right back in after barge sinks”
          Jan. 2021
          https://nypost.com/2021/01/26/barge-full-of-gowanus-canal-toxic-waste-sinks-epa-says/

          According to the EPA — Eating fish and crabs taken from Newtown Creek could harm people’s health, due to the chemical contaminants.
          https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/investigations/newtown/

          Nothing for the families to worry about — nothing at all…

          • LES3025 LES3025 November 18, 2021

            Au contraire, it sounds like they don’t have much to worry about if they don’t drink the canal water or eat crabs from Newtown Creek. Nothing here indicates that the housing is dangerous.

        • Downtown mama Downtown mama November 21, 2021

          It is, actually, “completely novel.” Elemental liquid mercury is rarely remediated and there are NO examples of a remediation like this completed by the engineer or the DEC in an urban setting. The community has asked multiple times for evidence, but the developer cannot produce it, because it does not exist. Mercury vapor is unique in that it will not evaporate like a VOC. It’s dense and remains low to the ground, allowing for accumulation. The evidence from the initial testing showed that removal of small amounts of material from the ground causes elevated levels of Mercury vapor well over 100 feet from the soil samples. So much so, that they almost could prompt a site shutdown. This was from removing 10-inch soil borings. That’s very small. The elevated levels were on Peck Slip, in front of the school. This indicates that levels could be significantly higher when the asphalt is removed. Please don’t write ignorant comments in an effort to paint the community as alarmists. Get your facts and science straight.

          • LES3025 LES3025 November 21, 2021

            Interesting. Can you point me to some sources on this?

  2. 20 year Seaport Resident 20 year Seaport Resident November 17, 2021

    I live here. Although I live in a ‘nice’ apartment, it is not a 4M penthouse. I have no view to be affected. It is a small 1-bedroom with 3 people living in it. I have benefited from affordable housing and work to try to ensure more people can, too. I welcome anyone into the community to join us and continue to build our neighborhood — regardless of socioeconomic status, and I am insulted if you insinuate otherwise. I have stood in the cold to protest for more affordable housing, not less, I work with community members to see that 5 World Trade Center has all affordable housing and takes care of 9/11 survivors by offering them the opportunity to be able to afford to live in Manhattan. I have no beef with affordable units across the street other than I want more of them.

    My apartment will probably go up in value with development — not down! So why then do I protest? Why? Because I am scared for my health and for that of my friends, neighbors and those who work here, along with the most easily affected, the elderly and the children. All potentially put at risk because of a rushed and incomplete process.

    I have lived here for over 30 years and have lived through 9/11 and stayed. I lived through Sandy and rebuilt. Why do I mention that? Because I am legitimately scared. I can recall what smelled like burning rubber many years ago and being reassured that everything was fine. That feels very familiar to what we were told when someone recently asked, “What exactly is in the chemical foam you are going to spray on the lot?” and were told, “I don’t know the name of the chemical but don’t worry, we are sure it will be safe.” Or when someone asked, “Why won’t you just tent the site while school is in session?” and the reply we were told was that “the site doesn’t pose enough of a risk to tent it” But when we asked the same question later, we were told that “tenting makes it too dangerous for the workers under the tent?” Huh?? Or how about when a patently false statement was made that there were “no mercury vapors detected.” Not true! There were! It’s in the report! How do you trust this process? There are gaping holes in the report and issues that are NOT being addressed.

    Perhaps you can understand why we are concerned when you recognize that you have a rushed process to hurry up and get shovels in the ground without having all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Or that we are concerned about having our children spend their entire day a few feet away from the site while active remediation is going on. Or when the independent Community Monitor says that all the work can be done outside of school hours? Yet the developer ignores her suggestions and later touts how “closely they are working with the Community Monitor”!

    The lot, as ugly as it is, with toxic chemicals underneath, is actually SAFE so long as the asphalt is not breached. So what then is the rush? It’s not being rushed for safety reasons. Why then exactly? Wouldn’t it make sense to be sure of your plan? Measure twice – cut once?

    • LES3025 LES3025 November 17, 2021

      I don’t know you, so I don’t have any reason to doubt the sincerity of your desire for more affordable housing. But the people you are defending here do not share that view. They fought against the proposal at the Landmarks Preservation Commission stage, reducing the affordable housing by 30%, from 100 to 70 units. They also oppose building housing everywhere else it’s proposed, like SoHo, Elizabeth Garden, South Street by the Manhattan Bridge, whatever the next project is, etc., etc.

      So you’ll have to forgive me if I paint the 250 Water Street opposition in broad strokes and question the sincerity of their belief that there is a real health issue here. They are looking for any angle possible to kill this housing project, and they will do the same with the next one.

      As someone else said, plenty of hazardous sites have been successfully remediated and developed. I’m sure the answers people have given you to date are far from reassuring, but I haven’t seen any reason to think this site poses some special risk, and I’m not going to take these NIMBYs’ word for it.

  3. David Sheldon David Sheldon November 17, 2021

    What does trickle-down housing have to do with toxic remediation in the midst of an urban residential environment with two schools and a senior residence in the mix? Who is using hostages when this affordable housing is used as an excuse for an outsized tower of luxury housing?

    • LES3025 LES3025 November 17, 2021

      Anyone who uses the phrase “trickle-down housing” should not be taken seriously on housing issues.

      • Mary Harris-Jones Mary Harris-Jones November 17, 2021

        Hey,LES3025:
        This story is about a slipshod toxic remediation by inexperienced engineers attempting a never-before-done elemental mercury cleanup next to 800 young kids. It is not the public’s job to prove that the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation has done this before it is theirs. But despite three years to provide a similar clean up, the NYS DEC has never, not once, ever, offered an even slightly similar situation to 250 Water St. Prove me wrong. 

        How dare you conflate your unabashed love of recklessly building with my love of my kid’s health and education.  Why would you cast aspersions on anyone protecting their kids? You took HHC’s bait and became a hater of moms, dads, kids, teachers and 9/11 cancer survivors. Icky. 

        Somehow, no matter the news surrounding 250 Water St., like you, HHC never fails to mention the affordable housing every chance it gets and deftly obfuscates its many failed promises, obligations and ignores the issue of a dangerous cleanup.

        Did you know — we are the same community fighting for 100% affordable at 5 WTC? Let’s see…70 units at 250 Water St. vs thousands of units at 5 WTC. But that story doesn’t fit into the narrative HHC wants you to spread about us, does it?

        Families struggling to get better remediation plans are not the problem here — but your poor judgement is. The badly designed cleanup is the issue. Your red-herring torch fueled by the HHC propaganda is a ludicrous distraction.

        And to David Sheldon’s point…if it looks like a debunked trickle-down housing lie, acts like a debunked trickle-down housing theory, and smells like a REBNY-stoked trickle-down failed housing strategy…it just is.

        • LES3025 LES3025 November 18, 2021

          Two points. One, a 100% affordable tower at 5WTC is not a real idea. I think a lot of the people advocating for it are very genuine (some of course are not). But there isn’t any money for it. If there were money for it, that money would be better spent to build more housing units elsewhere than to build them in an expensive tower in Lower Manhattan. If the money was there, I could get behind it as a matter of equity, but it’s not and it will never be. It’s just being used to poison the well and prevent an actual project that would be 25% affordable.

          Two, I assume by “trickle-down housing” you mean filtering. Where has it been “debunked”? Certainly not in New York because we stopped building any real amount of housing in the ’60s, and thus have actually done the opposite (and look where that got us). I can show you 5 studies off the top of my head showing that’s how housing works. I can also point you to construction and rent rates in Tokyo, Paris, Berlin or any other city that actually builds housing.

  4. confused confused November 18, 2021

    ““These kids play here,” she added, pointing to cobblestoned Peck Street in front of the Peck Slip School. The play street would likely become inaccessible while tons of toxic mercury left over from a long-gone thermometer factory would be removed from the ground through the Brownfield Cleanup Program.”

    Trying to sort out the logic here…the kids currently play on top of a toxic site…we don’t want the site remediated because then the kid can’t play…on the toxic site that needs remediation in order to be healthy for kids.

    • Mary Harris-Jones Mary Harris-Jones November 18, 2021

      Confused – I can easily explain:
      No toxins / vapor are escaping the ground currently. Extensive air sampling to get baselines were established BEFORE HHC started disrupting the asphlat — proving there is no risk with the asphalt in place. No pathways to sensitive receptors (as the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation likes to put it)
      However… elemental vapor was detected when engineers started doing tests and making drill-hole samples that were the circumference of about a tennis ball. When these small core samples were drawn, elemental vapor was detected with both hand-held devices at the “worksite” and across the site at the edges of the lot where the kids play. It is safe with the asphalt cap — there is no reason why the NYS DEC is rushing through this process. The required test pits, which NYS DEC said would be done when the kids were not in school, were approved to happen whenever HHC feels like it. That is but one problem with the remediation plan that was selected. There are many more. 

      Not a “NO” to the remediation — but insisting it be done better — safer.

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