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Questions linger near ground zero

Sunday, June 2, 2002

NEW YORK -- Cleanup at ground zero is complete, but restoration is far from over at nine vacant and scarred office buildings nearby.

Owners of several buildings, including a graceful turn-of-the-century landmark skyscraper designed by Cass Gilbert, are still negotiating with insurers. Some buildings will reopen.

But the 40-story Deutsche Bank tower, across from ground zero, is so infested with mold its future is in question, a prospect that raises a host of questions for planners working to revive downtown Manhattan in the wake of Sept. 11.

Louis Tomson, president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., said his agency may play a role in restoring some properties, and could consider condemnation of others if they were beyond repair.

M. Myers Mermel, chief executive of online commercial real-estate firm TenantWise.com, estimates 16.3 million square feet of damaged office space has reopened. Another 3.5 million square feet remains vacant.

Merrill Lynch and American Express both returned to headquarters in the World Financial Center. The Bank of New York recently started moving 5,000 employees back into its 22-story building.

But Deutsche Bank spokesman Mark Lingnau won't say what's planned for the office tower, and would not discuss reports the building could be razed because of mold.

Several people familiar with the building confirmed its interior surfaces are covered with mold caused by moisture from fire sprinklers.

"We're still in the process of conducting our evaluation ... both structurally and environmentally," he said.

The building, once worth $170 million, is now shrouded in black netting and a giant American flag.

"It's just a constant reminder" of the terrorist attack, said Ilyse Fink of the city Buildings Department, whose windows face the tower.

Near ground zero's southwest corner is a 1907 skyscraper designed by Gilbert, who also designed the Gothic-styled Woolworth Building.

The 25-story West Street building was pierced by flying debris from the twin towers, but is structurally sound, said Joel Weinstein, president of the engineering firm, LZA Associates, hired to evaluate the structure.

Weinstein said repairs would cost $60 million to $80 million. Tom Mathes, vice president of building owner FGP 90 West St. LLC, would not say if repairs are planned, however.

"We're evaluating all of our alternatives," he said. "We're still in discussions with our insurer."

Declared a city landmark in 1998, the building cannot be torn down without permission from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Commission chairwoman Sherida Paulsen said it could be sold for other uses.

"Een though the building is landmarked it could be converted to residential use or a hotel, or the commercial space could be reconfigured," Paulsen said.

Other buildings won't be reoccupied for months, including utility company Verizon's West Street building, due to reopen in fall 2003.

"There are still holes in the side of the building," spokesman John Bonomo said.

The Postal Service hopes to open its water-damaged 15-story building on Church Street this fall. Fiterman Hall, a 15-story classroom and office building donated to the City University of New York -- newly renovated before Sept. 11 -- is still negotiating with insurers about repairs.

"It's like a dinosaur bent down and bit off a corner of the building," said Claudia Hutton, a spokeswoman for the state agency overseeing the property.


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