(And a Park Becomes a more fully Baked Prospect)
The morning of January 31st was a frigid one. Despite the cold I walked my usual Saturday morning stretch to the Farmers Market at McCarren Park. A block into my trek up Driggs, I smelled fire and not the homey fireplace a-going chimney type smoke. I didn’t see any smoke, but the more north I got a few the stronger the smell. When I looked toward the river on North 11th, I saw black churns of smoke and tarry wisps disperse outward. Not too many people were out on the street nor too many people at the Farmers Market – the vendor of Haywood Farms came out of her truck where she was keeping warm and said with a smile,
“You are brave.”
“You’re braver. I’ll take a dozen eggs please,” I said and thought, “And I’m not as brave as those out there fighting that fire on top of this cold.” I asked her if she knew anything about the fire and she said she heard it was a warehouse down by the river.
Later I found out it was a 4 alarm fire at the CitiStorage warehouse on Kent and North 11th. Within a few hours the 4 alarms became 5, which became 6, until the final count of 7 alarms was determined. More than 200 firefighters battled the blaze at its worst, and two days later there were still 70 working to put out the fire. Chief James Leonard, Chief of Dept. for the FDNY predicted the fire would smolder 2 to 3 weeks. His prediction has pretty much hit the mark, confirmed by the continued occasional low warning moan of fire trucks on their way to the site even as of this writing, February 21, 2015.
On February 21st, 3 weeks after the fire started, I went to the site to see what was going on. I didn’t get too far. As I got within 4 feet of the entrance I heard, “Stop. You can’t go in there.” I looked to see where the voice was coming from — a man sitting in a SUV. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, so I asked him who he worked for. He didn’t answer me. I asked if the fire was still active. He said he couldn’t answer that, but the FDNY were always on site. I asked again if he worked for CitiStorage or what his position was. He only said, “I’m security.”
I left, but as I walked south on Kent, a fire truck came moaning with lights flashing toward North 11th and made the turn into the site. I in turn turned into Bushwick Inlet Park to get as close a shot of the damage to CitiStorage as I could, through their fence and close to the river edge.
Even though the smoke has cleared there is concern for how badly the environment was compromised by the fire. On February 4th Rep. Carolyn Maloney wrote a letter to Judith Enck, Admin. Region 2 of the US EPA, in which she said, “I am concerned about the release of potentially harmful contaminants into the atmosphere and into the soil resulting from this fire, and I am asking the US EPA to do whatever is appropriate to monitor air quality and work with local agencies to develop a protocol to clear the site safely, in accordance with all applicable rules and regulations. … My constituents have expressed the concern that the fire may be releasing dioxin into the air they breathe or into the East River. … white paper bleached with chlorine produces dioxin when burned. … The EPA has determined that no level of exposure to dioxin is safe.”
There was a lot of white paper that burned in that fire. As a storehouse for documents the CitiStorage facility held 100’s of 1000’s of boxes of records.
Council Member Stephen Levin has hosted two town hall meetings to hear area residents’ questions and concerns about the fire’s impact and to hear from those whose jobs or business was affected. NAG has started a petition to “Protect the Health of New Yorkers from Toxic Industrial Fires” due to the three major industrial fires that have occurred in the increasingly populous communities of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick over the past year. They call attention to the city’s health department taking over 15 hours after the fire began at CitiStorage to issue a public health advisory. Also that there needs to be an evaluation of response plans and for the NYC DEP and DOH to develop an emergency ambient air monitoring program. You may sign the petition here: https://www.change.org/p/new-york-city-mayor-bill-deblasio-protect-the-health-of-new-yorkers-from-toxic-industrial-fires
However there is a bright side. The land of the destroyed storage facility could be that much closer to becoming parkland. This is not a new brainstorm, this is an old promise made in 2005. At that time as a bonus to the new rezoning of North Brooklyn, which allowed more residential development, the City promised the community a 28-acre green space to be called Bushwick Inlet Park. Only part of that promised park has seen the light of day. The land that CitiStorage occupied was rezoned by the city for parkland with the intention of purchasing it. In 2005 the site was estimated to be worth $30M, but the purchase was delayed due to lack of funds. The ensuing years have raised the price to anywhere from $73M to $120M.
Residents and community advocates insist the City purchase the land to make good on the ten-year-old bargain that raised the residential population in a neighborhood that was already designated as having a below average rate of parkland per capita. GWAPP (Greenpoint Waterfront Association for Parks and Planning) estimates that even with the park North Brooklyn would have 1/3 the open space and parks that the average New Yorker does.
Council Member Stephen Levin has said, “The city made a commitment to the community to mitigate the impact of the rezoning through the creation of this parkland. That impact isn’t going away.”
On February 12th there was an Open Space Alliance Community Committee Meeting held at El Puente to discuss how the community could get City Hall’s attention on the matter of completing the Bushwick Inlet Park. They decided to take their case direct to City Hall via a rally on March 12th at 1 p.m. For information on the rally go to http://www.bushwickinletpark.org/
A park taking the place of the burnt remains of a warehouse is an obvious way to turn a bad event into a positive outcome for the community. Especially, since CitiStorage did support the community in various ways. One such way was the helping P.S. 132 have their Kite Festival. The Monday after the fire, P.S. 132 posted signs on their school to acknowledge this support and to send their condolences.