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Still Recovering From September 11

December 2, 2008

More than seven years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a community college six blocks from New York’s World Trade Center is still in the process of rebuilding.

Borough of Manhattan Community College was six weeks from completing extensive year-long renovations to Fiterman Hall, one of its marquee classroom buildings, when debris from the collapse of World Trade Center 7 in the September 11 attacks caused the building irreparable structural harm. Fiterman Hall was deemed unfit for use and has been closed to the public since.

“It looks like a wounded animal,” said Iris Weinshall, vice chancellor for facilities at the City University of New York, of which Borough of Manhattan is a part. “There is a gaping hole on the southwest portion of the building where [World Trade Center] 7 came into Fiterman Hall. There’s netting up around the building. It’s an eyesore.”

Last month, after years of planning, the college announced that funds were finally available for the $325 million decontamination, demolition and rebuilding of Fiterman Hall. The announcement comes at a time of great financial difficulty for both New York City and the CUNY system. Most of the price tag, however, will be funded by sources other than the city government.

An insurance settlement will pay the college more than $67 million for the project. A Federal Emergency Management Agency grant will contribute $60 million as part of a comprehensive package to rebuild the neighborhood. Locally, a Lower Manhattan Development Corporation grant will give $15 million, and the New York Community Trust’s September 11th Fund will add $5 million. A one-time state appropriation will pay more than $98 million specifically for the project, and the city has agreed to cover the remaining $80 million.

“In this difficult economic climate, the rebuilding of Fiterman Hall is a powerful signal to our entire nation that New York City is moving forward by investing in higher education opportunities, and in our human capital, through construction-related jobs and through the increased earning power of the students who will use this new facility,” said Matthew Goldstein, CUNY’s chancellor, in a statement.

Although city and college officials applaud the news of the project’s funding, the road to rebuilding Fiterman Hall has not been easy. Due to the toxic contaminants of the fallout from the collapse of the World Trade Center, there was great concern following September 11 about the air quality in lower Manhattan. As a result, plans for the Fiterman Hall project were subject to a lengthy approval process so that the city can ensure the building is fully cleansed of harmful toxins for a safe demolition. The building will slowly be brought down section by section in a six-month process.

An August 2007 fatal fire at the Deutsche Bank building — a nearby structure also damaged by debris from the World Trade Center — further delayed and reshaped the remediation of Fiterman Hall. The Deutsche Bank building was being demolished and cleansed of contaminants when a blaze there killed two firefighters.

The tragedy caused the Environmental Protection Agency to impose additional requirements on the college’s plans for Fiterman Hall. Unlike the Deutsche Bank building, Fiterman Hall will be fully cleansed of toxins before it is demolished. Remediation began in March 2008 and is expected to be done by February. Demolition should take an additional six months. In late summer 2009, once this is completed, the reconstruction will begin. If all goes according to plan, the building will open its doors in the spring of 2012.

When completed, Fiterman Hall will stand 14 stories tall and have more space than the current facility. In addition to classroom and office space, the building will also house a café on its first floor and large conference spaces on its upper floors for use by the public.

During its construction phase, however, the building is intended to be an “economic engine” for a city facing significant financial shortfalls. Weinshall estimates that, at the height of the project, about 300 workers will be on site at any one time. She said she expects a number of companies to bid on the project, adding that the construction market is favorable to the college.

While many people in lower Manhattan view the rebuilding of Fiterman Hall as a symbol of the city’s perseverance, college officials say it is essential to dealing with enrollment growth in the CUNY system. Borough of Manhattan is the only community college in Manhattan and, serving more than 21,000 credit-earning students, is the largest in the city.

“Our college is bursting at the seams,” said Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s vice chancellor for university relations, noting that the system’s enrollment is the highest it has been in 35 years.

Currently, the college is housed in four locations throughout lower Manhattan. Weinshall said it also has a number of temporary trailers located near its main campus to make up for lost classroom space during Fiterman Hall’s closure.

“I was with Chancellor Goldstein on September 12, right after the horrific attacks,” Hershenson said. “I remember standing with him on the roof of the current BMCC building, about a block away from Fiterman Hall. He indicated to the [BMCC] president we would all work to rebuild it.”

 

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