Volume 17 • Issue 16 | SEPTEMBER 10 - 16, 2004

Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie

City workers throw sandbags on W. Broadway Wednesday after heavy rains.

Soho gets lost in the flood – once again

By Lincoln Anderson

It’s hurricane season in Florida, which in a certain low-lying corner of Soho means one thing — it’s flood season again, man the sandbag brigade and build a seawall! Whenever hurricanes sweep the South and the attending torrential rains buffet the East Coast, the southwest section of the Downtown Manhattan artists’ enclave is at risk of being submerged under the overflow from backed-up sewers.

On Wednesday, the rainfall in New York City was especially hard and heavy, 3 inches in the span of a few hours one morning. As usual, the overtaxed sewers in the area of Grand and Thompson Sts. and W. Broadway backed up, spewing a disgusting slop of waste water and human waste back onto the streets calf high.

Compounding this usual problem, a few blocks away, after rain filled a pit at 72 Grand St., turning dirt to mud and weakening the adjacent foundation at 74 Grand St. The five-story, cast-iron façade residential building shifted 4 ? inches to the west. According to the Department of Buildings, excavation work at 72 Grand St. had been done improperly, without the required shoring of the foundation of 74 Grand St. to safeguard the building. On Wednesday, D.O.B. issued a violation to Omri, owner of 72 Grand St.

Residents of 74 Grand St. were evacuated on Wednesday. Six nearby buildings on Grand St. and one on Wooster St. were evacuated by the Fire Department, as well, for fear that 74 Grand St. might come down.

Jennifer Givner, a D.O.B. spokesperson, said the shifting was caused by “so much rain so quickly — it’s very soft soil there.” However, she said, that “barring any significant movement,” the building would not have to be demolished and would remain standing.

Wednesday night, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development had a contractor backfill the excavation pit and on Thursday they were doing shoring work in the basement of 74 Grand St., with further plans to shore the outside of the building. Omri will be billed for the work.

By Thursday, D.O.B. had allowed residents to return to all but 74 and 76 Grand Sts.

“We certainly want to let them back in the building, but we won’t do so until we’re certain that building is stable,” Givner said.

Ian Michaels, a Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson, said the sewage backup was due to three things: the heavy rain, the high tide and restaurants failing to adequately maintain their grease traps, leading to grease blocking the sewers.

At high tide, tide gates to the Hudson and East Rivers were closed to prevent water from filling up the sewer system, which would have created a worse sewer backup, Michaels said. However, by the same token, the sewers couldn’t spill over into the rivers, as they do during heavy rains, he added.

“The real reason for this is we got 3 inches of rain — one month’s rain — in one morning,” Michaels said.

Thankfully, the flood abated quickly last Wednesday; by noon the streets were clear, though full of mucky residue. However, in 1998, this section of Soho was again flooded during a heavy rain and it took longer for the water to subside. Michaels explained that Soho’s sewers drain downhill into one large, 4’-ft.-x-6’-ft., rectangular-shaped, east-west sewer on Canal St. that dumps into both rivers. In 1998, the sewer’s west end was blocked because of the Route 9A (West St.) reconstruction project, with a 6”-diameter pump being used as a substitute.

Michaels said that at the moment D.E.P. has no plans to reconstruct Soho’s ancient sewers, adding that the system works well except for in “extraordinary situations.” Given the choice between a lengthy sewer-replacement project — which would cost the city millions of dollars — and dealing with sporadic severe flooding, many residents and businesses would probably prefer the latter, Michaels said.

“The difficulties and hassles involved in ripping up and installing a new system may be more of an inconvenience,” he said.

Plus, Michaels added, “The whole system would work better if the grease traps were cleaned.” He said D.E.P. planned to put a degreaser into the sewers.

Last Wednesday night, several restaurants around the Grand St. and W. Broadway intersection were closed, including Lucky Strike, where a crew was disinfecting the basement. The head of the crew explained that the basement had been filled with 4 ft. of water and that the refrigerators had been floating.

Keith McNally, Lucky Strike’s owner, issued the following cryptic statement, “We are still recovering from the Republican Convention,” and offered no further elaboration.

Felix, a French bistro, was the only restaurant at the intersection open for lunch, because, manager Jeremie Carrier explained, they store their food on the second floor, since the basement is too small. But for other businesses at the location, the flood was a complete nightmare, meaning the loss of food, as well as equipment that will have to be thrown out.

Hit the worst — like always — was the building at the southeast corner of Thompson and Grand Sts., with Pfiff, a four-year-old restaurant and bar, on the ground floor. Patricia Dillon, 52, who owns the building and restaurant with her husband, said the city is offering no help and she is angry that D.E.P. keeps blaming grease for the severe flooding. She, and the owners of two other restaurants on the intersection, Café Noir and Naked Lounge, sued the city several years ago for damages from the persistent flooding but lost in court.

“They say it’s the storm — it’s not the city’s fault,” said Dillon, an art therapist. “It happened six years ago, it happened four years ago, it happened like a month ago. The sewers here, the city hasn’t been doing anything.”

Dillon spoke while standing near sandbags piled around basement hatches, protection against more rainfall predicted for that night. Dillon said two ground-floor apartments on Thompson St. they just finished renovating were wrecked by the flood. Of course, she’ll have to throw out and replace food, the boiler and refrigerators in the restaurant’s basement.

Told the city thinks Soho residents and businesses might object to the work involved in putting in a new sewer system, Dillon said it’s the opposite: “Of course we’d request that — we offered to the city to chip in money” for new sewers.

“This is awful,” said Dillon, originally from Argentina, of the perennial flooding. “I’m coming from a third world country, and I’d never been living with this before.”

In fact, Dillon said, she’s been a resident of Soho since 1979 and the sewer backups have always been a problem — “and there never used to be restaurants down here,” she noted — and it’s only been getting worse.

Sean Sweeney, director of the Soho Alliance, said that in addition to being located in an area known on old maps as Lispenard Swamp and for having inadequate, antiquated sewers, Soho’s population has boomed, overloading the system.

“In the 1960s, there were about a dozen people living down here,” he noted. “Today there are 7,000 people.” In 1995, residents fought construction of the Soho Grand Hotel on W. Broadway, partly because they felt it would worsen the flooding problem.

“We said this was going to happen,” he said.

Now, Sweeney says, another large residential building equal in size to the Soho Grand is planned on the 20,000-sq.-ft. parking lot across W. Broadway from the hotel. All of this just keeps overloading the sewer system, he said.

“The D.E.P. commissioner was just on TV saying it’s because the restaurants aren’t cleaning their grease traps,” Sweeney said on Wednesday. “But that’s not it — it’s because the sewers are inadequate.”

He added that new sewers were installed on Sixth Ave., but not at W. Broadway and Grand St.


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