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East Village Explosion Renews SoHo Residents' Fear of Fire Escape Removal

By Danielle Tcholakian | April 21, 2015 1:28pm | Updated on April 21, 2015 3:55pm
 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 — Last month's explosion in the East Village has fueled concerns by SoHo tenants over an architect's attempt to remove fire escapes from their building.

Architect Joseph Pell Lombardi says fire escapes are dangerous, antiquated, and not aesthetically pleasing, and is pushing to remove early 20th-century ones from 69 and 71 Greene St.

But locals — and the FDNY — say they're still needed, citing the young woman rescued off her East Village fire escape by a Good Samaritan during last month's gas explosion moments before her building collapsed.

"That was very scary and just sort of reinforces in my mind why they’re important," said Sarah Campbell, who lives on the fifth floor of 69 Greene St. with her husband and young son.

New Yorkers used fire escapes to flee blazes in at least three other fires recently, in Washington Heights, Bushwick, and on the Upper East Side.

The FDNY sided with the Greene Street tenants in testimony to the Landmarks Preservation Commission submitted by an FDNY engineer, who declared "for the record" that removing the fire escapes "would place both building occupants and FDNY" in danger.

"FDNY concurs with Community Board 2 and your concerns, and opposes the removal of the fire escapes in conjunction with present egress construction and this building’s current compliance with the NYC Administrative Code," FDNY engineer John Yacovone wrote in an email to the tenants.

Asked about Yacovone's testimony, Lombardi pointed to a New York Post story about himself and the fire escapes in which FDNY spokesman Jim Long declared that fire escapes "are going the way of the dinosaur,” apparently insisting that fireproof interior stairwells are now seen as a better emergency exit.

But Long told DNAinfo New York he wasn't referring to 69 and 71 Greene St.

"The New York Post never asked me specifically about those addresses," Long said. "They asked generally, in a broad sense, what we thought about fire escapes and the fact that they’re not as prominent anymore and that in some cases they’re being removed.

"The comment I made was based upon the idea that tenement-style buildings are being razed and replaced by high-rise-style, fireproof buildings where the fire escapes aren’t necessary."

An analysis by a deputy chief in the department's Bureau of Operations raised several red flags about "overall life safety for all building occupants and from the perspective to conduct potential fire operations from search and rescue to fire suppression," according to Yacovone's emailed testimony.

"Aesthetics is secondary to life, safety and structural integrity," Yacovone said.

Lombardi's assistant Elyse Marks dismissed Yacovone's testimony, and said that the Department of Buildings promised Lombardi he would get permits to remove the fire escapes if he got LPC approval.

"Their only issue was as long as you get LPC to approve it, it can be done," Marks said.

Despite the FDNY's concerns, the LPC aprroved Lombardi's application on March 24, saying the issue of safe egress is under the purview of the DOB.

The DOB did not respond directly when asked about Marks' assertion, but said no permits have been issued and that a second means of egress would need to be provided if the fire escapes were to be removed.

The agency has granted permission to Lombardi to remove fire escapes from a dozen buildings in Manhattan, according to the New York Post.