Friday, May 02, 2014

Amtrak to International Property Developers: You can’t turn those fans off

Written by  William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
Old Historic Chicago Post Office Building Old Historic Chicago Post Office Building
International Property Developers North America Inc., the Delaware-based subsidiary of U.K.-based commercial property developer and real estate investor William Davies, is seeking to reduce the operational hours of the ventilation fans in the Old Historic Chicago Post Office Building, which it acquired in 2009 for the purposes of redeveloping. Those fans now run 24/7.

The post office is adjacent to Chicago Union Station and (like the James A. Farley Post Office Building adjacent to Penn Station New York) sits directly over Union Station’s tracks and platforms. Cutting back on the ventilation fans’ operating hours poses a safety and security risk to Amtrak and Metra customers, Amtrak said.

Davies, Chairman of IPD and owner of the property, is seeking to overturn a 2013 Cook County Circuit Court order requiring IPD to operate the ventilation system 24/7 to prevent diesel fumes from accumulating in Union Station, and has filed a motion with that court for this purpose.

“The safety and security of rail passengers and employees is paramount to the way we operate Amtrak,” said Amtrak President and CEO Joe Boardman. “Amtrak and the City of Chicago each filed court actions and in 2013 obtained federal and local court orders requiring the ventilating fans in the Old Post Office Building over our tracks be operated continuously, 24/7. We find unacceptable that IPD now wants to significantly reduce the operation of those fans. We feel strongly that it’s the right thing to do to hold this property owner accountable to its legal obligations on this matter. The developer acquired the post office building with full knowledge that it is a passenger facility.”

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has lent his support to keeping the fans operating 24/7. “Given the serious safety and health issues involved, I strongly urge [Amtrak] to actively oppose any efforts to roll back operations and maintenance of this critical ventilation system,” Durbin said. “The 120,000 rail passengers and hundreds of workers who use Union Station deserve the best air quality possible and that quality is dependent on [the] ventilation system.”

“Amtrak is leading a coalition of other stakeholders to oppose [IPD’s] motion and greatly appreciates Sen. Durbin’s support as we fight to protect the safety of Amtrak and Metra passengers and employees,” said Boardman.

The controversy over the ventilation fans goes back several years. In November 2010, Durbin asked several federal agencies to work with Amtrak and Metra to look into the results of a Chicago Tribune report that said high levels of diesel soot and air pollution were present in railcars and on train platforms at Union Station. Following the newspaper’s report, “subsequent analysis found air quality inside the station is largely dependent on ventilation systems operated by private owners above the station, including the Old Post Office,” Durbin said. “When these exhaust systems are not properly maintained and operated, the resulting diesel exhaust accumulates and increases the amount of particulate matter in the air.”

In February 2012, Amtrak filed suit claiming the Old Post Office’s lack of ventilation was affecting public health. Durbin wrote Davies urging him to improve the ventilation systems at the property. Shortly afterward, the faulty ventilation systems contributed to a serious fire at the property, which forced several firefighting units and emergency personnel to shut down parts of the station’s West Loop to secure the area and extinguish the blaze.

In May 2013, a Cook County Circuit Court decision forced IPD to operate and maintain the fans at the Old Post Office. According to this court order IPD is required to keep its exhaust fans running 24/7.