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The Weight of Demolition Waste

In 2016, we revisited Washington Square Park and the radical fight to go completely “car-free”. At the time, it was a matter of preventing power broker Robert Moses from devastating our neighborhood by building a highway through it. But this communal victory was also an act of environmental justice for Greenwich Village. 

The fight for our environment, and the planet, has evolved into a battle for survival in recent years. New York City, home to 8.8 million people, is highly impacted by pollution, natural disasters, and waste congestion. Producing over 14 million tons of waste per year, New York City requires a makeover when it comes to our trash and the impacts of single-use, everyday products. 

Perhaps most prominent among these is the construction waste produced through new development, demolition, and the upzonings that can also result in unaffordable, oversized structures. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018 the U.S. produced over 600 million tons of construction and demolition debris, 90% of which is from demolition. In 1996, only 136 million tons of debris was produced in this country, indicating that C&D waste is only increasing with the continued demolition of buildings.

Manhattan: Broadway – Vesey Street” (New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1913)

Conveniently, studies on this form of debris have been overlooked in the discourse surrounding our environment, allowing many demolition projects to move forward without adequately regulating the resulting waste. The most recent local study on this aggressive pollution source in the five boroughs was completed by the New York City Department of Design and Construction in 2003. Yet as the climate crisis continues to march on despite personal efforts, it’s essential to zoom out on what is generating the astounding weight of waste in New York City and beyond. 

Structures of all sizes, found in all neighborhoods, have faced demolition to make way for newer buildings. One striking example was the massive demolition of the Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill-designed 707 ft. tall high-rise at 270 Park Avenue in 2021. This building required the disassembly of over 20 million cubic feet of material, and was the largest intentional demolition of a building in human history. Next on the chopping block is another massive haul of C&D waste that will result from the demolition of the Hotel Pennsylvania for PENN 15, a 1,200-foot tall commercial supertall planned at 15 Penn Plaza in Midtown, Manhattan. Both demolished buildings could be thought of as colossal, single-use products being tossed away without consideration as to where the material will go and the impact it will have on waste in New York City and the world. 

Photo by Michael Young

In our neighborhood, we continue to face the filings of various demolition permits for buildings of greater age and character. 813-815 Broadway is one example, facing demolition despite the historical, cultural, and artistic significance of a location that made Greenwich Village the hub of diversity and innovation that it is today. We’re also seeing demolition move ahead for 523-527 Sixth Avenue and 104-06 West 14th Street, structures that were stripped of historic architectural details (the distinctive “witch’s hat” from 523-27, and the cornice from 104-106), making landmark designation virtually impossible. 

523-527 Sixth Avenue/104-106 West 14th Street circa 2014

Despite the ongoing battle for landmark and zoning protections, and now for the environment, demolition permits continue to be granted left and right without consideration for the impact on the environment, to say nothing of neighborhood character and scale. It just may be that one of the keys to saving our environment and our planet is also a great way to preserve our history and sense of place.

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