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17 Hours of Jackhammering at Affordable Housing Site Jars Sugar Hill

By Jeff Mays | September 18, 2012 8:42am

HARLEM — The first thing Patricia Ju hears when she wakes up in the morning is the sound of jackhammers slicing through the bedrock at the construction site of Broadway Housing Communities' 124 units of affordable housing and children's museum at 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

It's also the last thing she hears before going to sleep, thanks to a city variance that granted the project permission to operate on a 17-hour double shift construction schedule starting last month — which means the grating noise and vibrations reverberate throughout the neighborhood from 7 a.m. to midnight, six days per week.

"It's like water torture, but with sound," said Ju, head of the Sugar Hill Block Association, who lives across the street from the project. "You can't sleep because of the noise and it's also the thing that wakes you up in the morning."

Ju's wife, Jenny Bennett, a theater writer and producer who often works from home, said the near-constant noise has disrupted her life.

"It affects my ability to concentrate and to sleep," said Bennett. "This is about being a good neighbor, a responsive neighbor."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the project a "rich cultural resource" when he attended a ceremonial groundbreaking on July 19.

The $80.2 million project, located atop Coogan's Bluff,  will include over 100 studio to three bedroom apartments with 70 percent targeted to the very low income.

An early childhood education center will serve 100 pre-school children on-site and another 70 families with home-based services. Designed by British architect David Adjaye, The Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art & Storytelling will anchor the space.

Maryann Villari, general counsel for Broadway Housing Communities, says the double construction shifts are necessary because the project will lose crucial tax credits if it is not completed by December 2013.

In order to meet that schedule, it is necessary to finish the groundwork that will allow the building's foundation to be anchored to the tough bedrock before winter, said Villari.

"Given the nature of our financing we have a strict deadline when we have to finish,"said Villari. "The bedrock is harder than we expected and closing for the financing was delayed because of the complexity of the financing and other issues."

Villari says the double shift means the number of days spent drilling will be less. The local community board was notified of the work, she said.

The Department of Buildings grants the site a weekly variance to work until midnight. After resident complaints, Villari says the contractor was asked to stop drilling at 11 p.m.

In addition, the DOB and Department of Environmental Protection has been checking to make sure the noise stays below 82 decibels. The plywood fences around the project are meant to serve as noise mitigation.

Approximately 85 decibels is the sound of a busy city sidewalk, according to the Dangerous Decibels Project.

However, critics say the drilling and vibrations are jarringly noticeable, and the sound bounces around the neighborhood. There are several apartment buildings and a school located within close proximity of the site.

"I am up until at least 11 p.m. every evening with the noise and my floors and walls vibrate," said Russell Taylor, who lives a block from the site.

Taylor says his building is situated on an alley which amplifies the sound. To get to sleep at night, his doctor prescribed a sleeping aid.

But Proponents say the noise is a necessary sacrifice, adding that the project is desperately needed in the neighborhood.

The Sugar Hill neighborhood, located on the border of Washington Heights, suffers from low levels of education and English proficiency. The area also ranks first in Manhattan among people who are eligible for public health insurance but are not enrolled. Broadway Housing Communities has developed supportive housing for low-income residents since 1983.

"It's a project we think will greatly benefit the neighborhood. There are deep pockets of poverty and it has one of the highest unmet needs for early childhood services. We are also bringing a new cultural institution," said Villari.

"It is ultimately a very short time," said Melissa Benson, Broadway Housing Communities' director of development and communications.

The recently-hired Benson said one of the first things she did after coming aboard was to send out an update of how long the drilling might last. The drilling was originally supposed to stop in mid-September. Now, it is expected to go another two to three weeks.

"If it helped to make earplugs available we'd deliver them door to door. There's no doubt we share the concern," said Benson.

Still, some neighbors say while they support the project, they feel the city has turned a deaf ear to  their complaints.

When Bennett called 311 to complain, she said the operator told her the system was not accepting additional complaints. A look at the city's 311 system showed 47 complaints at the intersection of 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue as of Sept. 17. Heading toward Edgecombe Avenue on 155th Street, there are another 22 complaints.

"In our house, you can't just hear it, you feel it," said Bennett, who added that she and others feel Broadway Housing Communities ignores their concerns.

"Every time we say the local community has a concern, the response is we are building affordable housing," said Bennett. "They seem to be about building community in their new building but they need to connect that with the community that is already here."

Taylor agreed, saying those in the neighborhood want drilling restricted to the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., better sound barriers and no more future variances.

"Though the development is laudable in it's scope and purpose ... there are tax paying, hard working, voting, law abiding families that are affected by this construction in a real and invasive way," he said.

"I'm a big fan of what this project will be," said Bennett. "But it has to be in balance with the people who live here."