BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Updated Feb. 22, 10 p.m.: The Department of Buildings on Saturday ordered the emergency evacuation of a residential building a block north of Washington Square Park after pieces of the facade crashed to the sidewalk and large cracks opened up on part of the exterior. A second building may also be at risk.
A D.O.B. notice posted on the front door of 10 Fifth Ave., at the northwest corner of Fifth Ave. and Eighth Street, reads: “VACATE: Do Not Enter. The Department of Buildings has determined that conditions in this premises are imminently perilous to life. This premises has been vacated and reentry is prohibited until such conditions have been eliminated to the satisfaction of the department. Violators of this commissioner’s vacate order are subject to arrest.”
An entry on the D.O.B. Building Information System’s Web site states that responding firefighters reported the emergency to Buildings around 7:15 a.m. on Sat., Feb. 18: “[Fire Department] requests an inspection due to masonry falling from facade.”
A D.O.B. inspector assessed the scene on Saturday. On Sunday, D.O.B. posted that an emergency full-vacate order was in effect, stating: “PREMISES UNSAFE TO OCCUPY DUE TO CRACKS AND SEPARATION OF THE RIGHT SIDE OFTHE 5TH AVENUE FACADE.” The actual vacate order on the building’s front door had been posted the day before.
The damaged building, a handsome property constructed in 1880, has 14 residential apartments and three commercial spaces. It’s landmarked since it’s included within the Greenwich Village Historic District. The facade appears to be brown sandstone.
Photos show window lintels at the building’s top right corner having split apart at their middle, where two pieces joined (perhaps the “separation,” the D.O.B. inspector was referring to) — with the gaps looking 2 or 3 inches wide, with nearby other large cracks snaking perilously across the facade.
Going back several months from now, neighbors had been complaining about loud construction noise at the site at 14-16 Fifth Ave. — just north of the damaged building — where a new 18-story condo tower is being erected.
Andy Baum, who lives across from the construction site, offered more insight into what’s actually going on there.
“There are two ‘pile drivers’ on the site at 14 Fifth, as well as an excavator,” he explained. “Actually, they don’t pound, they screw. The ‘pile drivers’ have screw bits that do the digging. The banging we hear happens when the bits are pulled out and they shimmy in order to shed the mud.”
In fact, the two machines, while resembling pile drivers in appearance, are actually known as foundation drills.
“Over all, they seem to be pretty careful at 14 Fifth,” he noted. “Though on several occasions they have been working outside legal hours — past 6 p.m. on weekdays and before 10 a.m. on weekends. But that’s a different story.”
However, D.O.B. is directly linking the situation at 10 Fifth Ave. to the construction project.
A stop-work order “for all foundation and earthwork operations” has been slapped on the project, with D.O.B. noting, “CONSTRUCTION SITE IS CAUSING DAMAGE TO ADJACENT PROPERTY AT 10 5TH AVENUE: ADJACENT BUILDINGS – NOT PROTECTED.”
A 10-story building, 12 Fifth Ave., sits in between the damaged building and the construction site. In fact, air rights (development rights) from 12 Fifth Ave. — which was not initially evacuated — are being used to add height to the project.
Inspectors are currently assessing the condition of 12 Fifth Ave., which, ominously, according to D.O.B., “shows signs of movement.”
In an update on Sunday, the agency’s Web site stated: “BUILDING [12 Fifth Ave.] UNDER STRUCTURAL MONITORING. BUILDING IS ADJACENT TO JOBSITE AT 14 5TH AVE AND SHOWS SIGNS OF MOVEMENT WITH NUMEROUS CRACKS AT NEXT PROPERTY AT 10 5TH AVE.”
Local resident Marguerite Martin was walking her dog Saturday morning when she came upon the startling scene. She gave The Village Sun her report.
“I noticed a lot of emergency vehicles outside of 10 Fifth Ave.,” she said. “It was debris on the sidewalk from the crumbling facade. I spoke to the [construction] foreperson, who told me the D.O.B. will determine if the building is still structurally sound. I asked him if it was caused by demolition and construction next to it and he said sure. This is one of the fears expressed when we fought to save the neighboring buildings. At this point, there’s just a few rocks [fallen pieces of the facade] on the sidewalk, but if you look at the building, there are terrifying cracks all over. Now they are putting up a sidewalk shed to protect pedestrians from falling debris.”
As for why foundation drilling is even needed at the site, it might be because it sits directly in the path of the legendary Minetta Creek. The nearly 2-mile-long brook was one of the largest natural waterways on Manhattan Island when European colonists first arrived. Originating around 10-or-so blocks farther north on Fifth Avenue, the fish-filled watercourse meandered to where Washington Square Park is now, then hung a right along the path of the eponymously named Minetta Lane, before splashing out into the Hudson River at today’s Charlton Street.
In New Amsterdam days, the area around the creek was known as “The Land of the Blacks,” settled by former African slaves who had been freed by the Dutch. Eventually, though, in the 1820s, the once-pristine and bountiful creek was covered over and turned into a lowly sewer.
Yet, while now hidden underground, the natural waterway didn’t disappear. For example, when New York University was building its new Kimmel Center for Student Life on Washington Square South in the early 2000s, constant dewatering was needed to pump out the foundation to keep it from flooding.
In fact, the Viele map from 1865 shows the underground brook angling precisely beneath the corner of Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue where the new luxe tower is being built. Hence, perhaps the apparent need for extra structural support from deep piles.
The construction project at 14-16 Fifth Ave. was fiercely opposed by local residents, in a campaign led by Village Preservation. The scheme, by developer Madison Capital Realty, required the demolition of two low-scale, history-laden, landmarked buildings and replacing them with a soaring sliver tower, initially pitched as 21 stories high, which opponents called noncontextual within the historic district.
Community Board 2 also opposed the plan.
Andrew Berman, the executive director of Village Preservation, was livid over the latest avoidable calamity within a local historic district. This past November, unpermitted structural work led to the city-ordered demolition of 14 Gay St., while in October 2021, a city-approved plan to save and incorporate the facades of nine landmarked Meatpacking District row houses into a new project (a.k.a. “facadism”) instead resulted in the historic structures’ demolition.
“The situation is infuriating and deeply disturbing,” Berman told the Sun. “The Landmarks Preservation Commission shouldn’t have authorized demolition of 14-16 Fifth Ave., given its historic importance and its location within the Greenwich Village Historic District. And the Landmarks Preservation Commission and D.O.B. should never have authorized construction of the 250-foot-tall tower to take its place without ensuring that appropriate safety measures were being taken to protect adjoining historic buildings.
“Within just the last year, 10 landmark buildings within Greenwich Village have had to be demolished due to work or conditions that took place or appeared on the L.P.C. and D.O.B.’s watch. These two buildings are lost, that’s numbers 11 and 12. That’s not a fluke, a mishap or a spike. That is a clear pattern of ineptitude, or willful disregard for the law and the imperative to preserve and protect historic landmarked buildings.
“These failures have serious consequences,” Berman stressed. “People lose their homes, lives are put in danger and the irreplaceable character and history of our neighborhoods and city are lost. Mayor Adams claims that we need to ‘Get Stuff Built.’ I say he should figure out how to keep stuff standing first.
“We have been in touch with the Department of Buildings and the Landmarks Preservation Commission since the situation first became apparent to communicate how critical it is that these buildings be saved,” the preservationist continued. “We’ve also been in touch with Councilmember Bottcher, with whom we worked on other instances of landmarked buildings being destroyed under the city’s watch. The blatant ineptitude here — or worse — must end. We cannot have a city where the most basic expectations about our ability to keep buildings safe and standing is taken for granted.
“The issue is not that construction can’t take place safely, since there are larger and taller buildings all around that site,” Berman added. “The issue is that too many developers don’t care about safety, and the city clearly doesn’t care about forcing them to do so. But the insult added to the injury here is that the city should never have allowed 14-16 Fifth Ave. to be demolished in the first place: That was a historic, landmarked building full of long-term, rent-regulated tenants in affordable apartments. But rather than preserve any of that, the city decided to give Madison Realty Capital what they asked for, in spite of their atrocious record as landlords and developers, and in spite of the clear historic value of the building they sought to destroy and replace.”
As of late Sunday afternoon, Berman said, his understanding is that 12 Fifth Ave. has now also been evacuated and that the fate of both historic buildings is in limbo.
“Last I was told by D.O.B.,” he said, “nothing had been decided yet, but there was a significant danger to both buildings and the situation was being evaluated for both buildings, with monitors being put in place and both buildings evacuated. They said 30 people.”
(It turned out that 30 referred to only the number of tenants who had been living at 10 Fifth Ave. The displaced tenants are being housed at the GEM Hotel and The Hotel at Fifth.)
“Ten Fifth Ave. dates to 1848 and, with the demolition of 14-16 Fifth Ave., it is the sole surviving remnant of a row of brownstone townhomes built by Henry Brevoort, who was largely responsible for developing Fifth Avenue and turning it into New York’s premiere address,” the preservationist noted. “It was the first building to be built on that site. Twelve Fifth Ave., which replaced one of the houses, dates to 1902 and was built as an apartment hotel.”
Sunday evening, Martin reported that, while there was no vacate order posted at 12 Fifth Ave., there were no lights in the windows, leading to speculation that the building was empty and that D.O.B. may, in fact, have already told the residents to vacate. However, Baum said that, in fact, lights were on in the building Sunday night.
Correction: The initial version of this article incorrectly stated that pile drivers with screw heads were being used at the 14-16 Fifth Ave. construction site. A spokesperson for the Pile Driving Contractors Association subsequently called The Village Sun to explain that there is no such thing, and that the method being used at the Greenwich Village site, in fact, is known as foundation drilling and the apparatus a foundation drill. As he explained it, foundation drilling bores a shaft into the ground by removing earth, after which concrete can be poured into the hole to create a pile. In pile driving, a steel H-beam, precast concrete pile or even wood is simply pounded into the ground without removing any earth. “We bang it in, pack it in,” he said. Basically, there are two distinct types of machines that do the job differently. “That is a drilling rig that is being used,” he said of 14-16 Fifth Ave., where two drilling rigs, in fact, are actually being used. He said the pile drivers association and the foundation drillers have “a friendly rivalry” and that each side thinks their approach is superior.