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MTA Ventilation Plant Will Tear Up Park Ave's 'Front Yards,' Neighbors Say

By Noah Hurowitz | November 8, 2016 7:33am | Updated on November 9, 2016 5:02pm
 A rendering shows one possible location for an emergency ventilation plant underneath East 37th Street between Park and Madison avenues.
A rendering shows one possible location for an emergency ventilation plant underneath East 37th Street between Park and Madison avenues.
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Metropolitan Transportation Authority

MURRAY HILL — Residents are saying “not in our front yard” to a proposed ventilation plant underneath Park Avenue that the MTA calls a critical safety upgrade that could save lives in the event of a fire or other emergencies.

Neighbors of the proposed project — which would likely involve ripping up part of Park Avenue in order to build a plant designed to ventilate a portion of the Lexington Avenue Line tunnel — say the agency has not seriously considered alternative plans that would be easier on the neighborhood, and worry that construction could drag on for years.

Residents of the area have already lived through years of construction, thanks to a portion of the East Side Access project, which has torn up part of East 37th Street, and worry about the addition of a new headache, according to Fred Cohen, who lives at East 37th Street and Park Avenue.

“We’re not saying ‘not in my backyard,’ because in reality we’d love to have this in our backyard,” Cohen said. “But this will be in our front yard, and that’s the problem.”

See Also: MTA Plans to Build Ventilation Plant Beneath Park Avenue

Representatives of the agency have said the plant is a necessary safety improvement to the tunnel, which doesn’t have an emergency ventilation system between East 33rd Street and Grand Central. But neighbors question whether the project is as necessary as the MTA says.

Ned Putnam, who also lives on Park Avenue, said the agency has not proven that a subway line that has existed for a century without a ventilation plant is truly in need of an immediate update.

“They say it’s an emergency, but I don’t think they’ve demonstrated that,” Putnam said. “The only need for this seems to be the need to use available funds in the capital budget.”

There’s also the issue of the project’s timeline, residents say, which the MTA has estimated will take about four years.

“If the East Side Access project is any indication, we have no confidence in their ability to get this done in a timely manner,” said Parce Ainsworth, who also lives near the corner of Park Avenue and East 37th Street.

And some neighbors, who say traffic along Park Avenue is already barely passable on some days, worry that tearing up a lane of traffic will cause years of gridlock and noise and air pollution as cars idle and honk outside.

Cohen, who lives just three stories above where some of the construction would likely occur, said he’s not looking forward to an indefinite stretch of time in which he can’t open his windows.

“Anyone who’s endured the East Side Access Project knows congestion and air pollution are a problem,” Cohen said. “If the MTA wants to build this plant, why can’t they come up with something that’s less disruptive?”

Representatives of the agency who spoke to neighbors at a public hearing on the project in June said the MTA has drafted a list of possible locations for the plant, which include:

►Underneath the northbound lane of Park Avenue between East 36th and East 37th streets, between East 37th and East 38th streets, or between East 38th and East 39th streets.
►Underneath the divider separating Park Avenue between East 39th and East 40th streets.
►Underneath the divider separating Park Avenue between East 37th and East 38th streets.
► Underground, between Lexington and Park avenues or between Park and Madison avenues, at East 36th, East 38th or East 39th Street.

Locations east of Park Avenue would cost an estimated $93.9 million, while locations west of Park Avenue would run the agency an estimated $96 million, and a plant built directly underneath Park Avenue would cost about $85.5 million, the agency said.

Neighbors have a few ideas of their own. According to Cohen, they’ve suggested three options that would be less disruptive to their lives, including putting the plant further up Park Avenue toward Grand Central, where there are more businesses and fewer residents, or using existing tunnels from the East Side Access project to pump air into the Lexington Avenue Line tunnel in case of an emergency.

“I understand the need to ensure that the subway system is safe but there are other ways to make it safe without impacting lives of people in the neighborhood,” said Ned Putnam, who lives nearby and has joined the effort to block the project.”

At the scoping meeting in June, MTA officials highlighted what they described as the high need for a ventilation plant here, in the case of an emergency anywhere between 33rd Street and Grand Central.

A 1994 study of ventilation at 242 segments of tunnel in the New York City transit system found the stretch between 33rd Street and Grand Central to be number five in terms of priority, according to the agency.

But it wasn't until the 2015-2019 capital program that funds became available for the work, according to Emil Dul, an environmental engineer at the MTA who spoke to residents at the June hearing.

Given the time that has passed since the 1994 study, residents like Cohen are not buying the MTA’s argument that this is a crucial safety initiative. 

According to Cohen, a Freedom of Information Law request showed that in the past 20 years, there have been just 95 small track fires in the section of tunnel in question, leading him and his neighbors to question whether the MTA was hyping up the safety issue.

The information in the FOIL could not immediately be independently verified, but Cohen compiled a summary and posted it to the group's website. An MTA spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the FOIL.

The Park Avenue neighbors have gotten some support from local representatives. In testimony submitted during the public comment period for the draft scoping document, Councilman Dan Garodnick implored the MTA to consider the project’s effect on the neighborhood.

“This project is large and extremely disruptive,’ Garodnick wrote. “The consequences of a multi-year, and potentially multi-block project are significant, and must be studied in great detail.”

The issue is particularly sensitive to residents still suffering headaches from the East Side Access project, Garodnick added.

“I want to stress the amount of MTA-Long Island Railroad East Side Access construction work that has occurred in Murray Hill over the past eight years,” he wrote. “Any overlap between the two projects should be extensively studied to evaluate its cumulative impact on the neighborhood.”

Construction, meanwhile, is still a ways off. The final scoping document, which outlines the project, is due in December, with a draft environmental impact statement to come in mid-January, a public hearing on the draft in February, and the final environmental impact statement due in mid-April or mid-March, according to MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz.

“We appreciate the input we have received to date regarding this proposed project, which will be included in the record of the project along with NYCT responses to questions and concerns regarding the Plant,” Ortiz said in an email. “Comments, questions and concerns raised during the scoping process will be addressed in the final scoping document for the project.”