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Spate of Harlem Building Collapses Worries Neighborhood

By Jeff Mays | May 8, 2012 9:37am
A building collapsed at 110 W. 123rd St. May 4, 2012.
A building collapsed at 110 W. 123rd St. May 4, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

HARLEM — The first time Syderia Chresfield went inside the brownstone on 123rd Street last week, she noticed plaster was peeling off the walls. The next day, it had got so bad it was covering the stairs.

"I got out of there immediately," said Chresfield, who lives next door and had been invited to take fixtures by the building's owner who was gutting it.

"The building was buckling. It was a disaster waiting to happen and it was just a matter of time."

On Friday, the five story brownstone at 110 W. 123rd St., near Lenox Avenue, came down in a "pancake collapse." Witnesses described hearing a series of cracks before seeing floor after floor collapse and the building fall west onto a community garden in an adjacent lot.

Neighbors say they are amazed no one was injured. Workers had left the site at noon and the community garden was empty.

But the collapse, the most recent in a spate of construction accidents and collapses in Harlem, has area residents concerned about safety as the pace of construction in the neighborhood begins to pick up steam.

According to the DOB, Harlem has five new construction permits issued so far this year, second only to the Hudson Yards area. In the last few months, there have been several collapses and construction accidents:

On September 20, 2011, scaffolding and a portion of a building being demolished at 301 West 125th St., near Frederick Douglass Boulevard, collapsed. Eighteen people were hurt when some of the debris landed on top of a city bus. Passersby had complained about falling bricks at the site. The construction company was issued six violations for infractions such as illegal mechanical equipment found on the site as well as an improper course of demolition after the collapse.

On March 2, 2012, firefighters rescued a man who was buried in debris up to his waist when a trench collapsed on East 122nd Street and Park Avenue.

On March 22, a 69-year-old construction worker was killed and two others seriously injured when a Columbia University owned warehouse at 604-606 W. 131st St., near Broadway, collapsed after workers cut a structural beam. The site had multiple violations. Deceased worker Juan Ruiz had told his family he was fearful because the building was too old.

On April 23, a 10-foot-high brick wall collapsed inside of 51 E. 125th St. at Madison Avenue due to high winds and rain. An area architect complained that the building was not braced well.

"We knew it was going to collapse, we thought it was a matter of time, so  I don't understand why no one from the Department of Buildings or the engineer knew," said Chresfield about last week's brownstone collapse.

DOB spokesman Tony Sclafani said the agency has created dozens of construction safety laws since 2008 and created new inspection units to target changes in the construction industry, but acknowledged "room for improvement."

"Contractors have a responsibility to protect their workforce and the public during construction operations," he said.

"When some fail to do so, tragic consequences can be the result. But there is room for improvement, and we continue to work closely with industry members to raise standards citywide.”

Garry Anthony Johnson, an architect and CEO of Johnson Design who works in the area, said he voiced concerns with police and the FDNY about the E. 125th Street building where the 10-foot wall collapsed.

"There was too much of the supporting structure removed, making the building unstable," he said. "They need more inspectors assigned to areas where there is an increase in construction activity."

Johnson said he is particularly concerned because he has seen what he considers less than experienced workers on many sites in Harlem.

"People are always trying to do more for less," he said.

"They are hiring contractors without expertise in a certain area, or the workers are the lowest-paid workers they can find."

Experience can make the difference between a safe construction site and a deadly accident, said Harriet Markis, chairwoman of the Construction/Facilities Management Department at Pratt Institute, who has not been involved in the structures at any of the sites.

"You want to have experienced people who have seen that type of construction before," said Markis, who has also worked as a structural engineer for more than 20 years.

"It's not a game. Lives of the workers, tenants and neighbors are at stake. The results are disastrous when there is a mistake."

Without examining the site of Friday's brownstone collapse, Markis said she would be concerned that the two buildings that had existed on either side of the brownstone were no longer present. One lot had become a community garden and the other was vacant.

"The buildings were built to stand together," Markis said.

"As soon as you remove one on either side the one in the middle needs help."

The DOB had issued a permit to "structurally reinforce" the building in February. The new owner, who purchased the building in November of 2011, planned to gut the interior while keeping the exterior intact.

According to DOB records, a three-alarm fire broke out at the location in 1995, damaging the "structural stability" of the building.

"It stood for years in a potentially unstable state," Markis said.

A representative for the owner declined to comment.

Central Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens said she is meeting with the DOB and has questions about the building's stability.

"I have several questions I posed to DOB about whether it was ensured the gutting would not cause any structural damage to the walls," Dickens said.

She said she also doesn't want to be alarmist about the recent spate of construction accidents.

"I'm upset by it because I live in Harlem, but this isn't the only place where buildings have collapsed," she said.

"I know this is an old city. The question is how do we protect the residents of our community."

Chresfield, who is also president of the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association, said as the neighborhood works to reclaim the community garden and waits for new structures to rise on the vacant lots, residents must be more proactive.

"We can't let something like this happen again," she said. "Because we might not be so lucky next time."