Sinking Land Blamed on Huge Mall Project -
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Sinking Land Blamed on Huge Mall Project

Thursday, March 20, 2008 - Forum West

Stoop near mall is cracked and sinking

Parking Garages, Sidewalks and Streets Cracking

Managers Blaming Rego Park Center construction

by Conor Greene

REGO PARK — Construction of a huge shopping center on Junction Boulevard is causing sidewalks, streets and parking garages in the area to sink, according to the managers of several nearby apartment complexes.

The Rego Park Center, a 600,000 square-foot shopping and residential project, is under construction at the old Alexander's parking lot, now owned by Vornado Realty Group, next to the Long Island Expressway.

Ground was broken on the project in late 2006, and actual construction began in May for an anticipated 2009 opening. The $550 million project will include a Home Depot, Kohl's and a Century 21. Originally expected to include two residential towers, it is now unclear if even one apartment tower will be built.

Sinking Began With Dewatering

In May, about a month after the project's contractor Bovis Land Lease began the dewatering process, residents and employees at the Park Plaza apartment building started noticing that the parking garage floor "began buckling and cracking," according to Diane Barton of Metro Management, which runs the building.

Barton had initially expected any issues with the construction site, which is directly across 97th Street, would occur during excavation work. "That caused our entire building to shake, and people complained about things falling off walls, but no [damage] happened then," she said. "Then all of a sudden, three weeks after they started dewatering, my garage floor started buckling and cracking like I've never seen before."

The cracking and sinking became so bad along the garage floor that "residents began calling and asking if we had put in speed bumps," said Barton, adding that one resident suffered a trip-and-fall accident because of a crack. She alerted the Vornado about the situation, which chalked it up to "normal settling."

However, that explanation failed to convince Barton. "All of a sudden you are pulling water out [from the ground in the area] and we're sinking," she said. "The sidewalks are a mess and the streets are a mess since the dewatering started."

It wasn't until late last year that the problem spread to other properties, including the Park City Estates, a five-building complex located several blocks from the construction site. There, property manager Charles Zsebedics noticed some cracks along the parking garage floor in December.

"On January 7, my staff informed me that major buckling and sinking [had occurred] in the garage," he said. "Knowing what Diane had been going through and the conditions I experienced, I immediately knew it had something to do with the dewatering process."

The floor of 153,000-square foot garage has sunk "anywhere from two inches to eight inches in some areas," said Zsebedics. In addition, "the sidewalks along 98th Street have sunk anywhere from an inch to six inches."

With the help of Councilwoman Helen Sears, Congressman Anthony Weiner, Deputy Borough President Karen Koslowitz and Frank Gulluscio, district manager of Community Board 6, the two building managers were able to get the attention of the city Department of Buildings, said Zsebedics. A meeting of engineers and representatives from the city, Vornado Realty and the affected properties was held, and a follow up session is planned.

"My greatest fear was that continued dewatering at the site would continue to create hazards in my garage," said Zsebedics, whose property includes 1,049 apartments housing about 5,000 people. Along with Barton, he is meeting with Derek Lee, Queens borough commissioner of the DOB this week. "It was very important for both me and Diane to be able to meet with the commissioner to explain the very far-reaching effects these damages have caused to both properties in terms of living conditions and finances, and make him aware that although the buildings are not falling, a sinking condition is serious."

Both property managers now find themselves in a difficult situation, as the dewatering process, which is needed due to the amount of water beneath the ground in the area, is expected to continue through at least June. "That is a concern for us, because it is our opinion, and that of the professionals involved, that we could continue to sustain further damage and sinking conditions."

City Investigating

For now, both buildings, the city and the companies involved in the project are investigating the problems, said Zsebedics. "Due to the timeline, it is apparent to me, and I think to anybody who looks at this, that the dewatering caused it," he said. "It's just a matter of they want proof, and we're almost ready to give it to them."

Meanwhile, residents are left concerned about the safety of their parking garage, and the financial security of their investments. "They're concerned. They want to know how we're going to pay for this," said Zsebedics, who said the cost of fixing the garage is not know, but could be much as $12 million. He also pointed out that the task of rebuilding a parking garage beneath an existing building is a daunting proposition.

Zsebedics credits local officials for "making this public enough to push Vornado to do the right thing." He notes that the residents who are being effected by construction are the same people Vornado is counting on to support the project once it's completed. "It's the money from these people that is going to support that site, so it would be a shame if they looked the other way," he said.

Daniel Berger, vice president of design and construction at Vornado Realty, provided an update of the project's status at last week's Community Board 6 meeting. While he didn't raise the issue of sinking properties, a resident asked about the problem. Berger said that the water level "is very high" at the site, about 11 to 13 feet below the ground surface. He explained that metal sheeting was driven into the ground around the area being dewatered.

The company is willing to discuss the issues with the city, said Berger. "We're going to have ongoing dialogue with them," he said. In the meantime, Vornado will "Get the dewatering process cut off as soon as possible."

Berger didn't return a phone message seeking additional comment, and a DOB spokeswoman was unable to provide information about the city's role in the issue by press time.

The sinking issue isn't the only topic Berger was forced to deal with at the community board meeting. Local officials were unhappy to hear that the residential tower planned for the southwest corner of the property might not be built as planned. "That's an economic decision right now," he said. "There is a debate over what kind of rents can be demanded."

That revelation earned a strong response from Joseph Hennessy, board chairman. "You had committed to one residential tower, and now your telling the community maybe," he said. "Now you're telling us that it might be all retail. That wasn't the commitment you made to the board."

Vornado had planned on building the tower, and still has the ability to build it on top of the three-story retail building, said Berger. "We have yet to make that decision. What dictates it is economics," he said.

Hennessy wasn't pleased with the lack of commitment from Vornado to complete the residential tower as planned. "You've taken the whole area for retail, and meanwhile we're not getting much back," he said. "Maybe the whole thing should be stopped."