ITHACA, N.Y. – Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick promised a crowd of about 50 on Thursday that he would withhold his recommendation for a tax abatement for the Travis Hyde Properties development of the Old Library site until asbestos removal plans are reevaluated.
Travis Hyde Properties plans to begin demolition of the former Tompkins County library at 310-314 N. Cayuga St. soon. It will be developed into a senior living complex called Library Place. Before moving forward, the company must address asbestos found throughout the Old Library building.
Plans to demolish the building have been slowed by an outcry from neighbors over the risk of asbestos exposure. Initially, Travis Hyde planned to remove asbestos from the site before demolishing the building, but after the building was condemned for its unsafe roof, developers changed their plans to demolish the building with the asbestos inside, citing concerns for workers’ safety. A demolition permit was issued on Oct. 5. At the beginning of the meeting on Nov. 8, the development team said work would begin as early as Nov. 12.
Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, circulated a letter in recent weeks urging the mayor to take emergency action to halt the demolition until all asbestos had been removed from the site. Hang said about 600 community members had signed the letter as of Nov. 8.
At Thursday’s meeting, community members had a chance to ask questions of Myrick as well as representatives from the City of Ithaca’s Building Division, Travis Hyde Properties, and Delta, the engineering firm that will monitor asbestos abatement.
Commenters, most of whom identified themselves as neighbors of the Old Library, voiced concerns about the health risks of the abatement method planned for the site.
Frost Travis, of Travis Hyde Properties, said the company initially planned to carry out a “contained” abatement process, meaning workers would go into the building and remove all asbestos-containing materials before starting demolition work. However, he said the company contracted a structural engineer after noticing pieces of the ceiling falling down over the summer and learned that the roof deck was in danger of collapsing due to rust.
The director of code enforcement for the City of Ithaca’s Building Division, Mike Niechwiadowicz, condemned the building Sept. 26. Niechwiadowicz said he determined “the roof deck is in danger of failure, and in some places, it has already failed,” creating a safety hazard for workers inside the building.
According to New York State code, when a building is condemned it may be demolished with asbestos materials in place. Once the Old Library building was condemned, the developers decided to move forward with a “controlled” abatement process, meaning demolition and abatement would happen simultaneously.
New York code mandates procedures to contain asbestos dust on controlled work sites, including putting up barriers around the site and continuously spraying water to limit airborne contaminants. A spokesperson for Delta engineering said the firm has overseen several successful demolitions using these methods, based on tests of air samples at the sites and New York Department of Labor inspections.
Community members, however, raised questions about how air particulates above ground level would be monitored, how risks would be mitigated if asbestos was found in air samples, and how wastewater from spraying would be contained and treated.
Speakers demanded a new engineering assessment to determine if the building’s roof could be reinforced such that workers could safely carry out a contained abatement.
“If it’s a matter of money, money is fungible … but human health is not fungible,” one speaker said to applause.
Myrick told the group he had limited tools at his disposal to compel the development team to change their plans. Reiterating that the building was condemned for unsafe conditions, he said, “I can’t talk Frost (Travis) into sending workers into an unsafe situation.”
Myrick said he could try to leverage Travis Hyde Properties’ request for a tax abatement, however, to persuade them to reconsider their plans. The mayor ultimately cannot decide whether or not to grant the developer a tax abatement; that decision rests with the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency. However, Myrick is expected to weigh in on the tax abatement decision by submitting – or withholding – a recommendation to the IDA.
“I will not write that recommendation letter unless (Travis) gives us time to hire an engineer of our own,” Myrick said.
By the time Myrick outlined next steps, Travis had already left the meeting.
Myrick said, “What I’m going to do tomorrow is call (Travis) and also send him a letter saying that I intend to oppose any tax abatement unless he does everything in his power to make this as safe as possible.”
Myrick specified that before recommending a tax abatement he would insist that an engineer determine whether there is any way for workers to safely carry out a contained abatement. He said if the engineer concludes that a contained abatement is not a safe option, he will consider creative solutions to mitigate risks to neighbors, such as asking Travis Hyde Properties to pay for temporary relocation during the demolition.
Myrick acknowledged the IDA could approve a tax abatement without his recommendation and that the project could move forward without a tax abatement. He said opposing a tax abatement is nonetheless the greatest point of leverage he could apply. “The abatements represent a lot of money,” he said. “No project downtown has happened without an abatement,” he added.
The next meeting of the IDA is at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 14 in the Tompkins County Legislature Chambers. The Library Place project is not on the November agenda, and the December meeting agenda has not yet been released.
Featured image: The Old Tompkins County Public Library building. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)