2016-01-27 / Front Page

Future Of Historic Paragon Paint Building Discussed At CB 1 Meeting

By Thomas Cogan
The Paragon Paint Building, 45-40 Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City may not itself go back to 1890, but a lot of chemical production has occurred on the site in a century and a quarter, and for much of that time the building has stood as the embodiment of both it and the considerable pollution that has accumulated as a consequence.  Community Board 2 held one of its supplemental meetings in late January to consider the problems that might hinder or defeat the effort to build housing (or perhaps something else) to succeed the abandoned factory.  Board members and others present at the meeting at the Academy for Careers in Film and Television in Hunters Point heard a landowner, a developer, architects and others connected to the project explain the application they are making to the Board of Standards and Appeals for a variance of their original plans, owing to the vastness of the pollution they have encountered and had to remove.  They also viewed the plan to establish a corridor that would lead from Vernon Boulevard to Anable Basin, behind the old factory, where a waterfront park would be built. 

What bothers some people about those plans for clean-up and beautification is the plan to construct three buildings, one 28 stories high, near the old site and an adjacent one.  That, some protest, would only encourage the furtherance of high rises in the area on and near the waterfront. 

Howard Goldman, land use counsel to the landowner, Brent Carrier, and the developer, Matthew Baron, president of Simon Baron Development, opened the meeting by reciting a few legal findings to support the request for a variance.  The first was the site’s unique physical condition, which is one of seemingly boundless pollution, steadily added to the building, the soil and the water for more than a century.  The building and the site are polluted and the waterside bulkhead is in disrepair.  The cost of clean-up is driving the variance request.  The BSA has said it will count only “premium” costs of clean-up and will determine what over-and- above expenses claimed by the site owner and developer qualify as premium.  Carrier and Baron say it would be consistent with the neighborhood to treat the factory site as waterfront property, since it is in everyone’s interest to build the waterfront park and in the process link it with Vernon Boulevard.  That would be done by taking down part of the four-story factory and revealing the park to everyone in the upland area where the boulevard is located.  (Part of the factory will be preserved as a relic.)  The sheer quantity of pollution is a hardship, Carrier and Baron said.  The BSA demands that the pollution must not have been self-created and landowner and developer said it has not, having been created largely in a time when pollution runoff was legally permissible. 

Michael Bogin, an environmental specialist with the law firm, Sive, Paget and Riesel, said that in purchasing the property, Carrier assumed possession of 200 underground chemical tanks that had to be removed.  He also said that he found the unimproved site the worst environmental mess he’d ever seen.  New York state’s Department of Environmental Conservation called it a menace left by generations of owners who “never advanced the process” of clean-up.  Removal of those tanks and tons upon tons of toxic soil was done by Carrier, with much of it done under a tent set up to keep foul odors from drifting into the community.  Bogin said landowner and developer expect to receive a certificate of completion of the brownfield program in the spring.  Even then, a lot will still have to be done, especially in Anable Basin.  Referring to the expense of waste removal, Carrier said, “We’re into it now by about $24 million.”  He said that after years of pumping he’s nowhere near the end and that in building a new bulkhead he released large amounts of oil trapped in the ground, such was the contamination. 

 Two architects from SHoP Architects in Manhattan, Todd Sigaty and Georgina Tiarnan, talked about the old Paragon building, with Sigaty saying that for all its faults, the building “has great bones.”  When it is broken open to create access from Vernon Boulevard to the water, there will be an opportunity to install several retail shopping outlets, they added.  Describing that access was John Donnelly of Scape/Landscape Architecture.  He defined the intertidal zone, between the high and low tides in Anable Basin, and said the idea was to place a two-level tidal marsh garden eight and 10 feet above it. The park would slope upward to a height of 70 feet and include amphitheatre seating.  In the water of Anable Basin, oysters and mussels would do their part in cleaning it up.  The marsh garden and all would be visible from the street and would be a beautiful sight, Donnelly said.  Baron said the corridor would have a width varying from 60 to 80 feet and “create light and air for the whole community.”  Goodman called the waterfront park, more than 18,000 square feet in size, “the crown jewel” of the project. 

CB 2 Board Chairman Patrick O’Brien began the meeting by saying he and the board had “significant concerns” about plans to develop the Paragon Paint site.  He allowed the Paragon people to describe their plans before saying he had “counterpoint” information to impart.  The prodigious clean-up and the prospective waterfront park have great merit, he said, but the project in its entirety looks like a serious case of overbuilding.  Considering the proposed 28-story tower, he said that height should be built toward the East River, not toward Anable Basin.  He expressed unease about the march of high-rise development behind the East River shoreline that is likely to follow the project under examination, should it be built.

Lisa Ann Deller, the board’s first vice chairwoman, said the developer’s promise of affordable units in the proposed housing is hard to take seriously.  This, she said, would be a luxury project.  Without the 421-A tax abatement, which might not be available, affordable units would be unattainable.  Baron said he grew up in a Mitchell-Lama apartment and remains in favor of a significant percentage of affordable units—he even suggested it be 30 percent--if the residential tower, containing 344 residential units, is built.  

Yet it might be built as a non-residential tower.  Baron said that commercial or medical use of the building is possible also.  At the moment, though, the tower is non-existent, and some audience members expressed the wish that it will always be.  Assurances that a slim, “rotated” tower would cast only a slim, fast-moving shadow were unpersuasive to several, and Kenny Greenberg, CB 2 board member and artist, even produced his rendition of a tower looking awfully like the long white stick on East 57th Street in Manhattan.  Questions about parking came up inevitably.  Goldman answered one about both parking and retail space in the proposed Vernon Boulevard-Anable Basin corridor.  He estimated there would be 13,000 square feet of retail space, but as for parking in the entire complex, he estimated 24 spaces, which got laughs lacking amusement.

O’Brien wanted the back-and-forth of this meeting as a prelude to a discussion of and vote on the project at the next Community Board 2 meeting, Thursday, February 4. 

He has said repeatedly that there’s a lot to consider when one takes in the whole thing.  The February meeting should be the next occasion of consideration.


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