Kaboom! MTA Plans Could Blow Up Midtown, Say Neighbors

Midtown property owners and their congresswoman are claiming that a planned Metropolitan Transportation Authority installation could turn into an explosive terrorist target with the potential to damage landmarks such as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

At the center of the controversy is a planned 16-story building on East 50th Street between Park Avenue and Madison Avenue, right across the street from the Palace Hotel. The building would serve as a ventilation and cooling tower for a link between the Long Island Rail Road and Grand Central Terminal. Local property owners have been fighting the facility in court, arguing that it would bring traffic and pollution.

But the MTA’s plans to store diesel fuel for an emergency generator in or beneath the building is stirring the most concern, prompting Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney to write a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, stating that the facility would create a “homeland security threat to thousands of workers and pedestrians.” “Concerned neighbors point out that terrorists could target the building knowing that the resulting conflagration would likely destroy the surrounding buildings and spread to the underground passenger concourse below,” Ms. Maloney wrote in the October 7 letter.

The spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Tom Kelly, said he hadn’t seen the letter, and did not comment in detail on the project. “We will take all safety and security precautions in the design and construction of the building,” he said.

Neighbors aren’t convinced. Representatives of the Palace Hotel, the Kaufman Organization, the restaurant group Smith & Wollensky, and St. Paul Travelers Companies, all with interests nearby, wrote their own letter to Secretary Ridge comparing the diesel fuel storage to the fuel tanks the explosion of which helped bring down 7 World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

The spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Joseph Zwilling, also said, “We have been following the matter with concern.”

Managers of the Waldorf-Astoria were not immediately available for comment.

The new building would stand on the south side of 50th Street, just west of the Colgate-Palmolive building. The Waldorf-Astoria is half a block east, and the grounds of St. Patrick’s begin half a block west. The building would replace four smaller structures, including the one housing the venerable Italian restaurant Giambelli 50th.

The new building would be part of a $5 billion plan conceived 30 years ago and on schedule for completion in 2012. The East Side Access project would link Long Island commuters directly to Grand Central, giving them access to East Side subway lines and the commuter rail that the current Penn Station connection makes inconvenient. In the plan’s current form, LIRR riders would disembark deep below Park Avenue and be transported by escalators to a new concourse closer to Grand Central.

The legal battle over the site has focused on the MTA’s decision not to perform a full environmental review when it decided to change its original plans – according to a 2002 MTA assessment of project changes – because a facility on 50th street would “consolidate many ancillary facilities in one location and reduce construction and maintenance costs.” That would include the emergency generator, and its fuel, which would power the escalators in case of a blackout.

Lawyers for the neighbors filed a request for a preliminary injunction this spring, demanding that the MTA complete a full environmental review. They withdrew their request when the MTA agreed to that review, which a lawyer for the owners of 437 Madison Avenue, Roger Roisman, said is expected any day.

But the battle appears to be just heating up. Project opponents have already retained lawyers, consultants, and public relations teams, and have even produced a thick study touting an alternative proposal.