HARLEM — Preservationists concerned about the fate of the 157-year-old watchtower atop Marcus Garvey Park squared off against Parks Department officials Thursday night, questioning the city's assurances that it will return in 2017 after getting dismantled.
The tower was slated to be taken down beginning this November after a Department of Buildings engineering report found it to be fragile and at risk of collapse.
According to the city's timeline, the tower will be completely dismantled by Spring 2015 under a $2.4 million contract.
But residents and historic preservationists are skeptical because no contract has been written to reassemble the structure.
Parks officials said it will take about six months to write the contract to have the tower reconstructed and to then have it reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the State Historic Preservation Office. The bidding process will last until Spring 2016 and the project should be completed by 2017.
During a tense Community Board meeting Thursday evening, Steve Simon, the Parks Department's Manhattan chief of staff, tried to reassure residents that the tower would come back.
The local councilwoman has questioned the Parks Department's intentions as well.
“I understand that the watchtower will be dismantled and stored, and that there is no current plan or time table for its restoration,” Councilwoman Inez Dickens wrote in an August letter to Parks Department commissioner Mitchell Silver. “This concerns me and the community.”
The plaza atop Marcus Garvey Park attracts a lot of criminal activity — there was an officer involved shooting there last month. Removing the tower could make that section of the park even "more isolated and a haven for more criminal activity," Dickens wrote.
The decision to dismantle the watchtower came after February's report warned that it may not survive the winter, Simon said.
Because the tower is at risk of collapse, the project was given emergency status and fast tracked. Without the emergency contract the tower would have stayed up until Spring 2016, he added.
“We don’t feel we have the luxury to keep it up for a year and a half and risk the structure," Simon said. "We have invested enough as it is.”
Meanwhile, the Parks Department is waiting to dismantle the tower and inspect every single piece to determine what needs to be done. Therefore, it cannot write the restoration contract without dismantling the structure, Simon said.
Simon and John Krawchuk, the Parks Department director of historic preservation, assured the community that restoration is a top priority and provided a timeline for it during the Thursday meeting.
Still, residents are concerned that the restoration will fall victim to the department's backlog of projects.
“If it was declared an emergency in February, why is it only being taken down now?” asked Paul Huck, who lives a block away from the park, in reference to the DOB’s engineering report.
The 47-foot cast iron watchtower was installed atop the hill in 1857 to alert volunteer firemen about nearby fires, according to Angel Ayon, a historian dedicated to preserving the tower.
It was decommissioned 23 years later when the city began requiring all buildings to have a fire alarm. The tower was landmarked in 1967, according to Ayon’s website.
In 1994, the city installed metal brackets on the first three levels. This was supposed to be a temporary fix and left the fourth and fifth levels unsupported, according to the Buildings Department report.
Marcus Garvey Park has a history of stalled projects. A clubhouse near the baseball field has still not been completed over the past three years, said Connie Lee of the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance.
"There is a lack of faith," she said. "We have concerns about the completion of the project because we already have a stalled project. The concern is real and the concern is relevant."
The clubhouse has not been completed because the city hired a contractor that was unable to do the job and ended up walking away. That problem would not happen with the watchtower restoration because there are only a handful of contractors that can restore cast iron, Simon said.
As far as the lag between the engineer's report and the dismantling of the tower, the city took longer than expected to find a storage location.
Once it’s dismantled and put into crates, it will be stored in Fort Totten, Queens. The fort has 24-hour security, there is no flood risk and the crates will be locked behind three separate gates, Simon said.
“This is a top priority,” he added. “There should be no doubt about that.”