Avenue B tenants are evacuated two times


By Sarah Ferguson

For the second time in a week, tenants at 9 Avenue B were temporarily evacuated from their apartments because of cracks caused by excavation work for a new eight-story luxury condominium on the site of the old Gaseteria gas station on E. Houston St.

The Fire Department ordered everyone out at around 9:45 a.m. on Tuesday after tenants who were awakened by heavy vibrations called 911 to report that the cracks, which first appeared last week, were getting wider.

“The building had been shaking since yesterday, and that’s when I noticed there was a big crack by my window,” said Jesus Campos, a waiter who lives on the fifth floor of the low-rent tenement. “Then today there was another big crack on the side of the building.”

Officials with the Department of Buildings seemed to downplay the problem. “We sent an inspector and an engineer to the site and we did detect a very slight movement in the building — but it was very slight,” said spokesperson Jennifer Givner, who noted that the tenants were allowed back inside Tuesday afternoon after workers moved piles of gravel and heavy earth to help shore up the old tenement’s exposed foundation.

But tenants say the 25-foot crack running up the south side of the building and another deep fissure dropping from the roofline are anything but slight. Smaller cracks could be seen around several of the front windows, and residents report deep cracks running the length of the stairwell, as well as bathtubs separating from walls, and front doors and closets that will no longer shut properly.

“The whole building is sinking,” complained Kiho Shin, a computer consultant who lives on the second floor. “In two days, I can see a half inch that went down in my bedroom,” pointing to the gap that opened up between his air conditioner and the windowsill.

According to Shin and other residents, the cracks were worsened by efforts to shore up the sidewalk along Avenue B, which began caving in last week. That collapse, and the cracks that had opened up in the interior and exterior of 9 Avenue B, prompted the Buildings Department to issue a stop-work order on Sept. 27, when tenants were also vacated from the building for several hours.

Officials from the Office of Emergency Management, Buildings Department and Fire Department decided to close the block to traffic because of concerns that the road could cave in. “They were worried that if a bus turned the corner the whole street might collapse and take out the gas, water, sewage and the whole electrical grid for the area,” said one city worker who asked not to be named.

Residents report feeling heavy vibrations as workers from Precise Construction on Broome St. in Soho began driving thick strips of corrugated steel into the ground along the sidewalk in order to prevent it from collapsing into the 25-foot-deep pit excavated for the new condo building’s foundation.

On Monday night, a Buildings inspector ordered workers to stop the shoring work until 9 Avenue B was braced, after residents complained that the cracks were getting worse. But tenants say workers did not brace the building and resumed pounding in steel sheets on Tuesday morning, until the Fire Department put a stop to it and ordered everyone out.

A contractor on the scene denied that the sidewalk shoring work was the cause of the problem. “We were monitoring the whole time, and the building did not move while we were doing that work. But it was moving after we stopped,” he said, declining to give his name.

Buildings officials said the cracking could have been caused by a number of factors, including the Lower East Side’s high water table, which leaves the area’s old tenements particularly vulnerable to excavation work. On Tuesday morning, a muddy pool several feet deep could be seen in the foundation pit next door to 9 Avenue B.

A spokesperson for the owner, Roberto Porcelli, who owned the old Gaseteria, insisted the firm was cooperating with the Buildings Department in every way possible to remedy the situation. “We were following their instructions to the letter, and we will continue to do so,” he said, adding that his firm had “redesigned the foundation” of the condo tower so that it would no longer be lower than 9 Avenue B.

But residents, who have filed numerous complaints with police and the Buildings Department since construction began in June, say they now fear for their safety. “From day one, I’ve had the feeling they weren’t paying a lot of attention,” said Campos, who shares an $800-a-month, one-bedroom apartment with his brother.

He points to July 5, when the crane that was demolishing the old Gaseteria gas station banged a big crack in the side of their building. D.O.B. issued a stop-work order then until the crack was fixed along with a fine of $5,000 for “failure to carry out demolition operations in a safe and proper manner.”

Porcelli received a second violation on Sept. 27 for “failure to protect public and private property during construction operations” when the second stop-work order was issued.

According to Givner of D.O.B., that stop-work order remains in effect and no further construction can take place until the owner “submits a full engineering report telling us how they plan to brace the building, which must be reviewed by the [D.O.B.] borough commissioner.”

The next step will be to install metal bracing along the cracks.

“We’re monitoring the cracks very closely with telltales to measure any movement,” Givner said.

But that does little to reassure residents like Campos, who have been rousted from their apartments two weeks in a row. “I’m trying to find a temporary place to live, because I don’t want this to be happening every week,” he said. “I’m starting to get really traumatized.”

Campos says he’s starting to wonder if the intention is to knock the tenement down.

Slated to open next spring under the address “One Avenue B”, the swanky new 24-unit building will be the first to offer concierge service on Avenue B.

The units will come equipped with Brazilian cherry-wood floors, washer/dryers, and “gourmet kitchens” — including high-tech refrigerators with touch-screen LCD panels that also control the TV, Internet and radio. Bathrooms will feature oversized soaking tubs, and the building’s gym will house a Pilates/yoga studio. Residents also will have access to a landscaped sun deck.