(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

Protestors organized by Coalition to Protect Chinatown on Wednesday (Photo by Kavitha Surana)

A simple red brick building established by a non-profit affordable housing developer two decades ago, 82 Rutgers Slip houses low and moderate-income residents, some who were previously homeless. Just down the street, a glossy 80-story tower from Extell–dubbed One Manhattan Square–is rising where a Pathmark Supermarket once stood. When it’s finished, it’ll boast a fire pit, doggy spa and tree houses, priced to entice the moderate-high-end buyers of Asia (starting at $1 million).

So when the residents of 82 Rutgers began to notice some cracks snaking through their building, splintering near door frames and windows, it magnified longstanding fears of displacement in this majority low-income neighborhood. After an inspection of the construction site at 250 South Street in January, the Department of Buildings issued a partial stop-work order, citing “failure to safeguard all persons and property affected by construction.” DOB documents said construction “created movement at [an] adjoining building,” and the contractor failed to immediately notify the agency.

Even if the damage is not actually dangerous to the building’s integrity, it may not be enough to assuage the psychological distress of many residents. They worry that the destabilization is just one more sign that they may soon be pushed out to make way for richer, fancier newcomers. One resident of 82 Rutgers, who didn’t want to give his name because he feared retaliation, said he was disturbed to see chunks of concrete peeling off the walls in the stairwell and the tchotchkes on his shelves shaking during the pile driving last year.

via Two Bridges Tenants Association

via Two Bridges resident association

“Structurally, it’s gotta have an adverse effect,” he said. “I mean look, they haven’t even done one floor of this new building and already the movement of the building is shaking things. There are cracks on the side of the building, there are cracks inside the building, the frames are shifting in the doors.”

“It’s nothing that’s monumental,” he continued. “But it’s like, little by little it adds up so it has an almost domino effect.”

On Wednesday the Coalition to Protect Chinatown, longtime protesters of Extell and the Mayor’s rezoning plan, staged another rally at the site, decrying the damage as evidence of Extell’s haste to build and disregard for its neighbors. With signs bearing messages like,
“Say NO to Extell’s Building from Hell!” and “Nobody in LES wants luxury towers that are displacing residents!” they highlighted their own efforts to implement the Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan that would prohibit future One Manhattan Square-style skyscrapers in the area.

The group also opposes Mayor de Blasio’s rezoning and affordable housing proposals, arguing they would only increase luxury towers and don’t have deep enough affordable housing provisions. But in a comment to Fox 5 News about the protest, de Blasio’s office wrote: “Many of the changes Mayor de Blasio has fought for would have likely resulted in a different project were this starting from scratch today.”

via Two Bridges Tenants Association

via Two Bridges resident association

Extell and its engineers say that 82 Rutgers is structurally sound and promise to repair the damage. At a community update meeting back in December, reps for Lend Lease, the construction contractors at the site, reassured residents who complained about new cracks in their community room and emergency stairwell, and said they would make repairs soon.

Alex Schnell, a spokesperson for the Department of Buildings, said that a partial stop-work order was issued Jan. 14 because there was an underpinning failure on one side of the Extell construction site which “caused some shifting of soil and potential cracking at the adjacent building, so a partial stop work order was issued.” It will remain in effect until Extell and Lend Lease are able to demonstrate that further work will not cause more issues to 82 Rutgers. In the meantime they can continue with other types of construction on the rest of the site. 

Schnell said a follow-up inspection on February 17 found the underpinning construction was still continuing, despite the partial stop-work order. “They failed to comply with the first one, so we issued additional violations. And we will continue to periodically inspect,” he said.  In fact, he said Extell is on a list at the DOB of about 1,000 “major projects” that receive extra monitoring and inspections.

A PR rep for Extell said that Lend Lease has submitted all documentation to DOB regarding the partial stop-work order, and they anticipate it will be lifted very soon.

A hearing on the violations was scheduled yesterday at the city’s Environmental Control Board, but after initial questioning it was postponed to April 14 so that the DOB inspector, Vicente Saavedra, could attend and clarify information. If the violations are proved, it would probably only amount to the cost of doing business for Extell–around $2,400 for a standard penalty and $12,000 for default penalty for failure to safeguard.

During the hearing, the lawyer representing Lend Lease US Construction said the defense would dispute the “failure to safeguard” charges. “We have voluminous evidence of all the safeguards in place,” she said, citing 24/7 cracks and vibration monitors. “There is nothing in this complaint that states what we didn’t do.”

“Are you denying you caused the crack at the adjoining building?” asked the judge, Joan Silverman. 

The lawyer responded, “I’m saying there was no failure to safeguard.”

The judge also asked the site supervisor at the time, Robert Marketta, questions about the failure to notify the DOB about the cracks. The lawyer argued Marketta did not think that, under the building code’s category, he had an obligation to notify. Marketta said he had been monitoring the situation but did not technically discover the cracks himself.

“What were you aware of? Did anyone from 82 Rutgers Slip inform you that there were cracks in the staircase?”  asked Judge Silverman. 

“No,” he responded. Again, it was decided that the hearing would be postponed to include the inspector.

Perhaps Marketta wasn’t personally aware, but at a December 15 community meeting with Extell and Lend Lease, residents did complain about cracks in the community room and emergency stairwell. At the time, a rep for Lend Lease responded that they were aware of some cracks in the stairwells, if not the community room. “This goes back quite some time, where we did walk the building with 82 Rutgers. We are aware of some cracking in stairwells,” he said, adding that he was happy to come check for the additional cracks residents were complaining about.

via Two Bridges Tenants Association

via Two Bridges resident association

Victor Papa, president of Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, which co-owns the building, told B+B that the cracks appeared about six months ago during pile driving and were “old news” already being “dealt with” by Extell and the owners of the building. “We decided to wait and see if any more occurred before they started repairing,” he said. 

“For the most part we are not that concerned about it, we don’t think it’s any risk to the structural integrity of the building,” he said, citing evaluations from engineers from Extell and the building’s owners, who had examined the damage. “As soon as [a crack] is reported, our engineers go on the site.” 

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

(Photo by Kavitha Surana)

But it’s hard to convince uneasy residents. Many feel their hold on one of the last un-gentrified corners of the Lower East Side is tenuous. They are only too aware that the value of the land under their building is skyrocketing, sharpened by their sleek new neighbor. The cracks and shaking seem like an inescapable sign of further destabilization to come.

“The building has some cracks and stability issues, but it wasn’t until that DOB stop-work order that it became more of a story,” said Trever Holland, president of the building’s resident association, who has been in close contact with Extell about the cracks. “Residents have always been concerned, but that really spooked residents and they said, ‘wait a minute, when DOB put you down because of the stability of the building we’re in, what the heck is this?””

He added that he expected Extell would honor their promises to make repairs at 82 Rutgers and work with the resident association, because they had said it publicly many times and made preparations, like taking extensive photographs of the building interior before construction began.