Volume 20 Issue 10 | July 20 - 26, 2007

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel

Esther Regelson on her roof last Thursday, the same day the Buildings Dept. issued a stop-work order at 111 Washington St. because debris fell on her building. Lower: 111 Washington St. workers left loose debris near the edge of the building after the stop-work order was issued, which appears to violate Dept. of Buildings regulations. No violation was issued for this.

Shaken by falling concrete, tenants hope developer changes his ways

By Skye H. McFarlane

As soon as the jackhammers started up next door, the nerves of the tenants at 109 Washington St. became shakier than the thin brick walls of their 1885 tenement building.

“It’s like having an earthquake just on the other side of the wall,” said Nancy Keegan, a restaurant manager who lives on the second floor of the 16-unit, rent-stabilized building just south of the World Trade Center site. Keegan said that since the pounding started in early July, books have fallen off her shelves. Her affable mixed-breed dog, Titus, has started barking and pacing with anxiety. With a job that brings her home after 3 a.m. most mornings, Keegan said she rarely gets more than four hours of sleep before the jackhammers start at 7 a.m.

The jackhammers are there to take down the parking garage at 111 Washington St., where The Brauser Group plans to build a 50-story condominium. While the 109 Washington tenants have no love for the hulking garage, they fear that the demolition process may compromise their safety and sanity, not to mention the structural integrity of their aging home. After a stop-work order was issued last Thursday, the developer promised more safeguards. Still, the residents were still anxious as work resumed Tuesday.

The worries began on July 2, when residents noticed that there was no lighting under the sidewalk shed in front of their building — a violation of Department of Buildings regulations. The lighting was soon installed, but by then the shaking had started. The jackhammering, to date, has only occurred during the city’s standard hours for noisy work, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. However, since many of the building’s tenants either work nights, like Keegan, or work from home as artists and freelancers, the noise has a heightened effect on their lives.

Residents also said that they are sometimes more sensitive to the noise and the dust of the demolition project because of their personal histories. Most of the tenants were in the neighborhood on 9/11, making them acutely aware of loud noises and shaking. Esther Regelson, who is being treated for 9/11-related respiratory problems at Bellevue Hospital, said that the concrete dust from the demolition is not helping her condition. Jim Pedersen, a classical musician and cancer survivor, said he fears that the stress and lack of sleep may bring back his disease.

The concerns about sleep and dust at the beginning of the month soon took a backseat to the fear of falling debris. Residents began to notice chunks of concrete on their windowsills and in their building’s rear terrace. Cracks appeared in plaster and stucco within 109 Washington. Finally, on July 11, two large pieces of concrete fell from the demolition site, denting 109 Washington’s trash cans. That same day, three bricks broke loose from the 109 chimney and landed in a tenant’s fireplace.

The tenants called 3-1-1 15 times between July 2 and July 11. The Buildings Department performed repeated inspections of 111 Washington, but did not inspect 109 Washington. The inspectors found no grounds to issue violations.

“They were looking, but they weren’t seeing,” Regelson said of the inspectors.

Buildings spokesperson Caroline Sullivan did not explain why inspectors did not look at 109 Washington earlier, but said that generally “if the complaint specifies that a neighboring property is at risk, a Buildings inspector will inspect both the construction site and the adjacent property.” 

On July 12, after Regelson had solicited the help of the Downtown Alliance, the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, Councilmember Alan Gerson’s office and neighborhood activist Kimberly Flynn, the Buildings Department finally sent an inspector inside 109 Washington. After looking at the fallen concrete and the cracked chimney, he issued a stop-work order and a violation for dangerous demolition and failure to protect public property.

“This has not exactly been a cooperative project to date,” said Charles Maikish, executive director of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, when asked about the 111 Washington demolition. Maikish favors stop-work orders over fines as a means to get developers to make their sites safer.

On Thursday afternoon, Keegan, Regelson and Pedersen were enjoying the quiet as they pointed out what they jokingly called the “concrete evidence” that the contractor’s torn netting and short sidewalk shed had not been sufficient to keep rubble off their backyard. Regelson gave thanks to Flynn and to Gerson’s chief aide, Sayar Lonial, for helping her to get the D.O.B.’s attention. However, the tenants’ momentary relief was tempered with the worry that as the demolition progresses down the building, the shaking may shatter the largely unprotected windows that pocket 109 Washington’s north wall, which abuts the garage.

Early Friday morning, the contractors began putting up additional netting and shedding to protect 109 Washington’s rear yard. Later that day, Scott Heller of The Brauser Group met with the tenants to discuss how to make the demolition safer and less disruptive.

Heller did not return calls for comment, but Regelson, who was at the meeting, said that Heller and the workers agreed to start jackhammering farther away from 109 Washington in the early hours, so that residents might have a chance to sleep later. They also agreed to give the 109 tenants copies of their structural reports and to install vibration monitors to gauge whether the shaking reaches dangerous levels.

“They’re making concessions to us and they are seemingly willing to work with us,” Regelson said Tuesday.

Even if the contractor proceeds with care, Regelson and her neighbors still have fears about the future of their building. They point to the example of 213 Pearl St., an 1830s loft building that was badly damaged when the buildings on either side of it were demolished. The rent-protected tenants were forced out of their homes. After months of repairs and court battles, only two tenants returned.

The former settlement house at 107 Washington St., on the other side of 109 Washington, is also owned by Brauser and is also slated for demolition. The 109 tenants worry that once the support of the neighboring buildings is gone, their building may not be strong enough to support itself. The south wall at 109 Washington already shows bulges and cracks. The tenants’ fears intensified when they learned that the demolition company working on 111 Washington St., L.J.C. Dismantling Corporation, was also the contractor on the Pearl St. project.

The residents have long feared that Brauser would purchase their building and demolish it legally, leaving them with few affordable housing options in the rapidly gentrifying Downtown neighborhood. But for now, they are focused on keeping their apartments safe and livable as 111 Washington comes down.

“These are the types of buildings that you hear about collapsing and I’m worried about that,” said Pedersen, who now keeps his valuables in a storage locker, just in case. “I want assurance that I will not be pulled out of a pile of rubble some morning.”

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