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Residents Fear Developer's Plan to Remove Greene Street Fire Escapes

 The owner of 69 and 71-73 Greene St. wants to remove the fire escapes from the front and back of both buildings.
69 & 71-73 Greene St.
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SOHO — Tenants in two landmarked buildings fear for their safety because of their landlord's plan to remove the external fire escapes from their buildings.

But the architect hired by the owner of 69 and 71-73 Greene St. to carry out the changes to the buildings' front and rear façades says removing the fire escapes is allowed under city code, because the 4-foot-wide stairwells in both buildings exceed the city's fire egress requirement, which is just two feet.

And the architect insisted his plan will leave the building better off in the event of a fire.

"There actually is a positive thing in terms of fire safety," architect Joseph Pell Lombardi said. "Because while we’re taking down the fire escapes, we are installing a deluge system of sprinklers."

A Department of Buildings spokesman said the egress requirement Lombardi referenced is in the city's Multiple Dwellings Law, but that there are several criteria that will need to be met when Lombardi applies for permits to remove the fire escapes.

“The applicant will need to demonstrate in the plans that the fire escape is not necessary, and that the alteration complies with applicable buildings codes including an adequate means of egress in the event of an emergency,” the spokesman said.

At a public meeting Tuesday night, Lombardi's assistant, Elyse Marks, said she has been inspecting fire escapes professionally for years, and insisted they are extremely dangerous.

"Most of these fire escapes are death traps," Marks told Community Board 2's landmarks committee Tuesday night. "I stopped going out on them after I did my first inspection. Just 'cause it's there, doesn't mean you should use it."

But tenants at Tuesday night's meeting said the interior staircase is rickety, “very steep,” and “unreliable.”

It's also made of wood.

“The stairwell is not a straight line all the way down,” said Johan Sellenraad, who has lived in 69 Greene St. for 37 years. Sellenraad lives on the fifth floor, and said the stairway twists and turns after the fourth floor, becoming difficult to maneuver.

“It may be wide,” added Nancy Rosenfeld, a tenant at 69 Greene St., who provided photos of the stairs, “but it is steep, uneven, [and] the steps are bowed and warped.”

Because the buildings were declared landmarks by the city, Pell needs permission from the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission to make changes to the exteriors. The LPC is scheduled to hear his pitch on Tuesday, March 24.

Residents also insisted Tuesday night that the fire escapes were integral to the character of the building and Greene Street as a whole.

Pell, who is a well known preservation and restoration architect, argued that the fire escapes did not merit preservation because they were "not original" to the building.

"The original cast iron buildings are compromised by these late addition fire escapes," Pell insisted. "The owner feels very strongly, and we agree, that they detract from the building."

But the fire escapes have been on the building since at least the 1940s, according to tax photographs included in Lombardi's application, and are pictured in photographs from the LPC's official designation report for the buildings, also included in the application.

"Whether [or not] you consider them aesthetically worthy, they are a visual element that everybody looks at," said Joanna Coyle, who attended the meeting on behalf of her brother Patrick Gorman, a fifth-floor tenant at 71 Greene St. "They absolutely define the sense of the place."

The buildings' owner attempted to win CB2's approval to remove the fire escapes last year, but were rejected in a resolution declaring that “the fire escape, although not original, is historic and adds to the character of the historic district” and quoted a letter from a retired FDNY captain who decried the push to remove the fire escapes as “indefensible and unconscionable” and “insane."

According to last year's resolution, the owner also “illegally removed historic fire shutters on the rear facade without LPC permits,” and proposed installing new, different windows for market-rate tenants but not for rent-stabilized loft tenants."

The management company for both buildings declined to comment.

The CB2 Landmarks committee voted Tuesday night to recommend denial of the removal of the fire escapes because the two adjacent buildings have fire escapes, as do several others on the block, "and thus this is part of the character of that block," said committee co-chair Sean Sweeney.

Sweeney also questioned Lombardi's argument about the internal staircase.

"Just because the stairs technically pass code, a narrow wooden staircase, some 130 years old, worn and rickety and askew, is not adequate," Sweeney said. "Remember the Happy Land fire, where people could not escape up the stairs?"