Volume 21, Number 51 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 8 - 14, 2009

Downtown Express photo by Vadim Shepel

Aerial view of the 71 Reade St. site where a building collapsed last week.

Safety & preservation alarms raised after building collapses

By Julie Shapiro

A week after a 154-year-old building in Tribeca collapsed in a shower of bricks, several residents and preservationists spoke out against what they see as a disregard for historic buildings.

The first thought Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, had when he heard that 71 Reade St. had fallen was, “Oh no, not again,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s becoming all too common here in New York.”

The city Buildings Dept. has not determined what caused the facade of the five-story building at 71 Reade St. to crumble early on the morning of April 30. No one was seriously hurt, because the building was vacant and it was too early for pedestrians to be streaming along the sidewalk, but several vehicles were crushed by falling debris and residents of nearby buildings had to evacuate.

Berman and several others charged the Buildings Dept. with neglecting the building, which is just down the street from their headquarters.

Buildings Dept. inspectors visited the building two days before the collapse and ordered the owner to shore up the building and put a monitoring system in place, said Kate Lindquist, D.O.B. spokesperson.

“The owner was in the process of addressing those issues,” Lindquist said.

The D.O.B. issued owner Aharon Vaknin a violation last summer for a 1-inch-wide crack in the building that ran 10 feet up the side. Lindquist said Vaknin never fixed the crack and owes $10,000 for that violation. A hearing is scheduled for June.

More recently, the Buildings Dept. got calls from people who thought the building looked unstable, including a caller the day before the building collapsed who said bricks were loose and the building appeared to be vibrating.

Vaknin filed plans with the city last year to convert 71 Reade St. and several adjacent buildings into a hotel. He planned to leave the facades in the historic district in place, while adding a penthouse addition and redoing the interior.

Vaknin and his architect did not return calls for comment.

Next to 71 Reade St., construction is underway for a six-story residential building with a two-story penthouse. The D.O.B. stopped that work on April 9, noting that the drilling at 73 Reade St. was causing the northwest corner of 71 Reade St. to crack and sag.

Harry Kendall, partner at BKSK architects, which is designing the residential project, said in an e-mail that his contractors did not do any excavation work near 71 Reade St. and his building is not to blame for the collapse.

Regardless of where the blame falls in this case, Berman said the city needs to do a better job of protecting landmarks.

“We’re supposed to be preserving these buildings in perpetuity,” Berman said. “The fact that it’s not happening speaks to a terrible flaw in the system.”

Earlier this year, Buildings Commissioner Robert LiMandri cited the need for new guidelines for monitoring adjacent buildings during construction and for more safety rules governing excavation.

Berman said the commissioner’s recommendations are a start, but he wants to see a requirement that engineers and architects on pre-Civil War buildings have preservation training.

“We need a mechanism to flag these buildings for extra preservation oversight when foundation or other major structural work is proposed on either the building itself or any neighboring structure,” Berman said.

Tobi Bergman, who lives in an 1837 building on Watts St., also spoke of the need for protections. One of the supporting walls of his building dropped 2 inches three years ago when a developer building a hotel next door did not provide the required supports. The developer submitted plans to support Bergman’s building, which the D.O.B. approved, but then the developer did not follow those plans, Bergman said.

He wants to see the city follow up and make sure developers do what they say they will do, with harsh punishments for those who don’t follow through.

“You can’t just wait for disasters,” Bergman said. “Just because nobody was killed this time, that doesn’t make it any less serious. If buildings collapse, then people are going to get killed.”

Bergman and Berman listed more than half a dozen historic buildings in Lower Manhattan where adjacent work compromised the structure. The one that nearly everyone thought of when they first heard there’d been a building collapse on Reade St. was 287 Broadway, a landmarked building that has been leaning on steel supports for more than a year since adjacent construction caused the building to list to the side.

On the afternoon of April 30, several hours after the collapse, the street in front of 71 Reade was still closed, but passersby thronged to the corner of Reade and Church Sts., leaning over police barriers to get a glimpse of the splintered structure.

Craig Heard, 58, a lawyer whose office is nearby, said the collapse made him wonder if it was worthwhile to keep old buildings standing.

“It’s good to have historic preservation,” he said, “but it reaches a point where the buildings are so old that it’s possibly dangerous to keep them there. These buildings would be no loss to humanity if you took them down.”

Lisi de Bourbon, spokesperson for the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, said 19th-century buildings are among the best constructed in the city, and it’s a question of maintenance, not age.

“You can keep a building standing for an awfully long time if you take good care of it,” she said.

Both 71 Reade St. and its twin, 69 Reade, which must also be torn down now, were occupied by merchants selling flowers, dry goods and hardware starting in the mid-1850s, de Bourbon said. The buildings had many historic elements, including window sashes and the cornice.

Shortly after the collapse, the city sent out a Notify NYC alert to subscribers. The alert came as a surprise to Elisa Chen, who is opening a children’s learning and yoga center called Body and Mind Builders at 78 Reade St. next month.

“I’m just glad I was not there,” Chen said as she tried to get access to the block on April 30. Looking over to 71 Reade, where workers in cherry pickers were pulling off the dangling bricks that remained, she added, “That’s really dangerous.”





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