Volume 74, Number 20 | September 15 - 21 , 2004

Villager photo by Ramin Talaie

Pumping 4 ft. of water out of the basement at Lucky Strike restaurant on Grand St. In background, at left, is building (with graffiti) that shifted 4 1/2 in. last Wednesday during heavy rain, causing evacuation of eight buildings.

Rain ravages Soho as building shifts, sewers flood

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 morning, the rainfall in New York City was especially hard and heavy, 3 in. in the span of a few hours. 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 the usual problem, a block away, after rain filled a pit at 72 Grand St., turning dirt to mud and weakening the adjacent 74 Grand St.’s foundation, the five-story, cast-iron-facade, residential building shifted 4 1/2 in. to the west.

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

According to the Department of Buildings, excavation work at 72 Grand St. — site of a former one-story building — had been done improperly, without the required shoring of the foundation of 74 Grand St. On Wednesday, D.O.B. issued a violation to Omri, owner of 72 Grand St.

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 remain standing.

Givner said that, in fact, the building had moved 11 in. out of plumb in the last six months.

Wednesday night, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development had a contractor backfill the excavation pit and on Thursday they did shoring 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 river 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 are supposed to do during heavy rains, he added.

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

Thankfully, the flood abated quickly. By noon the streets were clear, though left with some mucky residue. However, in 1998, this section of Soho was also 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.-by-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-in.-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 stressed, “The whole system would work better if the grease traps were cleaned.” Likening grease to “the cholesterol of the sewer system,” 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, on top of which refrigerators had been floating.

Through a spokesperson, Keith McNally, Lucky Strike’s owner, issued the following statement: “We are still recovering from the Republican Convention.”

The spokesperson did not elaborate, but asked if Soho restaurants had been hurt by the convention, she said businesses that saw any benefit seemed to be those in Midtown.

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 nightmare.

Hit the worst — as 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 flooding. She, and the owners of two other bar/restaurants on the intersection, Café Noir and Naked Lounge, sued the city several years ago for damages from the persistent sewer backups, 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 — more rain was 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 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 problem. “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 in addition to being located in an area known on old maps as Lispenard Swamp and having inadequate 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.” In 1995, residents fought construction of the Soho Grand Hotel on W. Broadway, partly because they felt it would worsen the backups.

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

Now, Sweeney says, a 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.

“The D.E.P. commissioner was on TV saying it’s because the restaurants aren’t cleaning their grease traps,” Sweeney said. “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.

Sweeney added that it’s a mystery what Eddy Omri, owner of 72 Grand St., is doing with the property.

“They had a permit to do some foundation work; they haven’t been very active at the site,” D.O.B. spokesperson Givner said.

Sweeney noted that another Omri property, at the corner of Howard St. and Broadway, where there is a one-story, pentagonal, former bank branch building, is also an eyesore and riddle — the landlord chopped down 10 old London plane trees on the site over a year ago and has turned the property into a flea market, though a six-story commercial building had been planned.

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