A city-owned parcel of land at 57-15 49th Street in Maspeth, that was once used to manufacture aluminum for war planes, will soon be tested for potential environmental contamination thanks to a $412,500 Brownfields Grant provided through the Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act.
The 2.8-acre site, known as the Maspeth Project, was purchased by the city two years ago through a condemnation process. Situated in a dense manufacturing zone, it has remained vacant for a number of years.
In the past, the area had been used for bus maintenance and storage, a silkscreen printing facility, a graphic dye-cutting operation and as an aluminum manufacturing plant during World War II.
Victoria Vattimo, spokesperson for State Senator Serphin Maltese, said the senator and Queens Borough President Claire Shulman had requested that the site be tested and cleaned up.
Maltese said the Brownfields Grant will allow the site to undergo testing before the city can proceed with its plan to build a consolidated water and sewer maintenance facility for the Department of Environmental Protection.
The grant provides 75 percent of the cost to investigate the property. The total cost is estimated at $550,000 and the city has agreed to fund the balance.
“New York’s Brownfields Program is helping cities across the state to revitalize our urban landscape by turning abandoned and underused properties into community assets,” said Governor George Pataki who proposed the act which was passed in 1996.
“This grant is a perfect example of how funding from the clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act is fostering environmental renewal, creating economic opportunity and improving the quality of life of all New Yorkers,” he added.
“New York’s Brownfields Program is one of the best-funded of its kind in the nation and it is helping bring jobs, parks and new housing to communities throughout the state at sites that previously were unusable,” Maltese explained.
He thanked the governor on behalf of the residents and the families of Maspeth and Queens “for this vital Brownfields funding.”
Maltese said it will “enable us to investigate and clean up property in many of our vibrant Queens neighborhoods.”
Frank Principe, the president of the West Maspeth Development Corp., and a long-time member of the community, said he was “very familiar” with the site.
Principe said he was told about the DEC proposal, “but the city was not moving on it.” City engineers contacted him about a year ago inquiring about the history of the site which he helped develop.
During the war Principe, a licensed engineer in construction, said he had backfilled the area in the 30’s with excavation debris to fill in what was originally a huge swamp.
As the war continued, he said the need for more airplanes became desperate, but there was an inadequate supply of aluminum to build the airplanes.
“Alcoa and Reynolds both had limited capacity,” he explained. “To make aluminum you must use an electric dry heat process mixing two different powders. This requires an enormous amount of electricity,” he said.
In order to meet the need for the electricity, two development sites were chosen, one in Los Angeles and the other in Maspeth.
“The idea was to drain the power from these two big cities in order to make the aluminum,” Principe said.
A tremendous plant was built in Maspeth which Principe engineered on 100 acres of land with 44 buildings. “It was a big project,” he said.
“We siphoned off the electric from the Navy Yard and tied into a plant in the Bronx, but that still wasn’t enough. We would burn out the Navy Yard power every week,” he said.
The problem was solved when the country came up with a wartime campaign that required homes and businesses to submit to electrical brownouts in the city using the excuse of enemy sightings along the coast.
“It was only propaganda,” Principe said. “It was a big fraud to make the electricity available to our plant.”
The brownout hoaxes and work at the aluminum plant continued from 1942 to 1943. One million pounds of raw aluminum were made at the Maspeth site and then shipped to New Jersey and Pennsylvania where it was made into sheets and used to build war planes.
The plant was shut in 1943, but Principe felt the area had potential and he founded the West Maspeth Local Development Corp. “Industry started moving in and I’ve continued working on that area for the past 20 years,” he said.
Principe said he wants factories to build in the area and bring jobs and provide a strong tax base for the city, not a city agency like the DEC.
“I’m opposed to city agencies using valuable commercial M-3 zoned property. It spoils the area. It brings in people from Long Island with cars and there is no tax base,” he said.
Principe said Maspeth has already been stuck with a 6-acre plot where 400 buses are stored by the Transit Authority. “We wanted factories there,” he said. “The city ignored our requests.”
Although the cleanup and grant will make the property safe, Principe said he will fight against another city agency locating in Maspeth.