Only in Schenectady could a sewage pump station be a historic building.
And it’s not just any pump station — the most important one in the city’s entire system.
From the outside, it doesn’t look like a pump station at all. The tall building, with high arched windows, overlooks the Mohawk River in Riverside Park. It’s nestled in the middle of the state’s first historic district, the Stockade, and it fits right in. One might be excused for thinking it was an old guard house or even an unusual residence.
But inside, three pumps keep sewage flowing for half the city.
This arrangement might have continued if Irene had not come roaring down the Mohawk. Floodwater breached the walls and moved the foundation some slight amount, less than an inch, said city Director of Operations William Winkler.
“But where it’s moved, that’s critical,” he said. “If the next time the water comes, it moves easy, that’s going to have a dire consequence.”
He fears a main sewer pipe — 44 inches wide — could rupture, spewing untreated waste into the nearby river.
Repairing foundation damage is expensive. FEMA and the city disagree on exactly how much must be done. The city asked for funds to build a new pump station. FEMA refused, offering only money to repair the building.
Now the city is appealing that decision and moving ahead with its plan to build anew.
But what to do with the unique building that they will leave behind? Only one thing is sure so far: it will not be demolished.
Old Building, new use
City officials are looking for a new use for the building, as a community center or the like. That would probably involve giving the building to a nonprofit agency.
“Obviously what we’re hoping to do is find a reuse of that building right there on site because it has a historic nature,” said Paul Lafond, the city’s deputy director of water and wastewater.
There’s just one problem.
“It won’t be flood-proof,” Lafond said.
And the foundation might slip further in another Irene-like flood.
“The soil it’s sitting on could have been compromised,” Lafond said. “We just think it’s been compromised.”
That’s where the city and FEMA disagree as to the extent of the needed repairs.
But while the city looks for a new use for the building, it has a fight on its hands: designing a new pump station that will also be in the historic district.
The new station is projected to be built directly behind the existing one, because it must hook up with main sewage pipes that go down the river. The building will be smaller, and at the same elevation, but will be “a fortress” to protect it from flooding, Lafond said.
Making it a fortress won’t prevent the architects from creating a beautiful exterior, he added.
“The outside can be whatever people like,” he said. “Nobody cares about the inside — that’ll be pumps.”
There will be “flood gates” inside — in essence, removable walls — that can be placed over every window and door to make it flood proof if the river threatens, he said.
City officials know they’re wading into deep water with the proposal for a new station. Rarely has a new building been built in a historic district in Schenectady, and those projects have often been fraught with controversy.
There was the imitation Dutch house built in the middle of the Stockade. The historic replica of the firehouse built next to Clinton’s Ditch, abutting the Stockade. Neither were well-loved in their inception.
Lafond said the city will probably spend most of the year on design. It will be discussed at city meetings, as well as with the historical society and the Stockade Association, he said.
And the final result, he said, would not offend Stockaders.
“It would blend with the Stockade neighborhood,” he said.
He added that the city doesn’t have the money to build something similar to the existing station.
But the design will be “acceptable” to everyone, he said.
MJ Engineering, the low bidder for the project, will come up with the design after multiple public meetings, said associate Chris Dooley.
He expects the design process to take some time.
“It’s hard to say [what to do] because everybody has their own definition of what meets the aesthetics of the surrounding area,” he said.
But he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“Any time you get to work on a historic building, it’s a challenge,” he said. “We’re excited about it.”
Still, getting public approval may not be easy.
Schenectady Heritage Foundation chair Gloria Kishton said the worst thing the city could do would be to design a historic-looking station.
The federal Department of the Interior has specific guidelines for new buildings in historic districts, she said.
“You’re not supposed to imitate or make a copy of a historic building,” she said. “They advocate that you should build of your own time and place in a sympathetic manner” to the surroundings.
So she’s not hoping for a Dutch or early-English building.
“We hope it will be a beautiful design,” she said.
As an example, she cited the recent addition to the main branch of the library.
“I am not critiquing the design at all, but it’s clear that is an addition and not part of the original design. And that’s what we want to see,” she said.
She added that the modern architecture style that emphasizes glass and metal would not be “sympathetic” to the surrounding buildings. One example of that style is the Re4orm Architecture office building on Clinton Street.
But there are other styles, she said.
“We understand that architecture evolves. Time goes on,” she said.
Others may not be so sanguine about modern styles in the Stockade. Proposals for modern architecture have faced criticism in the past.
But most seem to have accepted the city’s argument that the station must be built.
Kishton said it was clear the city did not find it “financial feasible” to repair the building, particularly when it could be flooded again.
Stockade Association President Mary D’Alessandro, speaking as a resident of the neighborhood, agreed.
“It’s absolutely critical that something be done because we can’t have something happen with another flood,” she said.
And the city’s promise to save the building relieved many fears from historic preservationists, who had been gearing up to fight against the demolition of the station.
Now they’re focusing on the design of the new building.
No one has stepped forward yet with ideas for the old building.
“Any reuse, so long as there is a reuse,” D’Alessandro said. “No one wants to see that building torn down. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous building.”
She would love it to become a stage for children performing plays.
The roof was once used as a dance hall, with live music, but in a recent renovation many vents were placed in the roof, making it unusable as a floor.
In any case, Lafond expects that no commercial use would be possible now, given the zoning and flood concerns. But he thinks many social uses, such as a community center, could do well there.
“We’d love to see that building reused,” he said.
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