By NICK BUGLIONE
Around-the-clock police patrols are keeping prowlers from the five
sunken homes on 159th Street and 84th Avenue and protecting passersby as city officials
try to determine why they have begun to sink.
159th Street and 84th Avenue in Briarwood is where 10
families have been evacuated from their homes.
Tribune Photos by Ira Cohen
Last week the peace and quiet of the
Briarwood block was suddenly breached with a thunderous crash, as the earth began to
slowly swallow the foundation of the houses.
Homeowners stood helplessly as they watched
the thousands of hard-earned dollars they invested into these buildings over the years
sink down into the pavement. Sidewalks were twisted and buckled, houses were splintered
Since then 10 families have been evacuated
from the five structures, sparking a multi-agency investigation and instilling fear into
nearby residents whose homes remain unscathed.
Paul Wein, spokesman for the
Buildings Department, said that evacuated families, who were moved as a precautionary
measure, are staying with nearby relatives.
Visible cracks on the walls of the 159th Street
homes, like the ones shown above, are giving area residents a sinking feeling.
"At this point weve
evacuated the families for their safety," Wein said. "Right now were
working with other city agencies to determine whats going on."
According to Wein the cause of the sinking
is "still being determined," and he would not speculate on the possible
However Department of Environmental
Protection spokesman Charles Sturcken said the officials are investigating the possibility
that an improper landfill caused the sinking.
"When the houses sank, it caused our
eight inch water main to break," Sturcken said. "One of the residents said that
there was an old lake there some years ago. We looked at old topographical maps and found
that in 1900 there was a large [water body] with a depth of 20 feet below where the
present street is. So somebody had to fill that in."
William Nieter, director of
Environmental Studies at St. Johns University, said the vast majority of Queens and
New York City consists of landfills.
"Building becomes a problem anywhere
you have a great depth of filling," Nieter said.
City officials are trying to determine what exactly
caused these homes on a block in Briarwood to sink.
Approximately 13,000 to 16,000 years
ago, Queens and Long Island consisted of forested hillsides, with small streams and
wetlands the majority of which have been filled up and developed over, Nieter
Some local geological experts speculate
that construction on a landfill could very well be what caused the sinking of the five
But John Spavins, spokesman for the
Department of Design and Construction, said many factors could contribute to a structure
sinking when built over a landfill.
"Its a combination with the
nature of the soil and the kind of building techniques that were used," he said.
"Certain techniques are more prone to settling than others."
Spavins went on to note that prior to
building construction, contractors are required to perform a soil analysis that among
other things examines the earths quality and level of contaminants.
As for the Briarwood sinking, "I can think of no
other incident in my memory where this has happened before," said Wein.
Diane Cohen, district manager of Community Board 8 which covers
Briarwood, echoed Weins sentiments.
"This is something new. In fact I had not even gotten complaints
about this issue," she said. "I did get a call from a woman wondering what she
should do if she begins to see cracks in her house."
But while some of the representatives of the 14 Queens community boards
could not recall sinking situations, others told the Tribune that sinking buildings
in Queens are by no means an unheard of occurrence.
Several years ago in the Ridgewood Gardens section of Woodside "a
whole community was sinking," reports Roe Daraio of Councilman Walter
Houses that were built on a land filled swamp started breaking and one
even began to collapse, Daraio added. Streets were dug up and repaved after pilings were
installed. "We havent had a complaint since, knock on wood," Daraio said.
Community Board 14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska recalled a few
similar situations that took place in the Rockaways.
"We have these old summer bungalows that people winterized. I can
remember at least one or two calls that the sides of the houses were sinking," Gaska
said. "Our geology is different from the rest of the mainland because were
surrounded by water so our ground can be a little softer."
Houses in a land filled Maspeth region have also experienced some
sinking and cracking over the years, according to Gary Giordano, district manager of
Community Board 5.
"On 75th Street, between Eliot Avenue and Juniper Boulevard North,
a couple of houses have sunken over there," said Giordano.
Cracked apartment walls and the displacement of bricks have been the
result of sinking at the Forest Hills Cooperative, which is located over what were once
"Theres always been some cracks when the building
settled," said Joyce Welles, a board member and resident shareholder of the coop
since it was built in 1976. "It was built on a swamp. LeFrak owned this property and
he didnt build on it because of the expenses. The buildings were originally going to
be 24 stories, but they cut that in half because it was going to be too much weight."
When sinking worsened about a decade ago, a $90,000 retaining wall was
erected, that greatly improved the situation, Welles added.
Despite official reports that the Briarwood sinking is
an isolated incident, nearby residents are still afraid that their homes might be next.
"I would like our house to be checked, its better to be safe
then sorry," said Juliet, who has lived on the block for 13 years and asked that her
last name be withheld. "Were really scared."
Though most neighbors reported that so far their homes have suffered no
significant damage since the incident, or in the years that theyve lived there,
others were not as lucky.
Angelo Karakostas Evagelos, 63, lives in one of the homes that has
sustained substantial cracking, but has not been evacuated.
"This house has problems," said a dejected Evagelos as he
stared at a crack that now tears horizontally through the exterior of his home.
"Something happened with the foundation."
Standard insurance policies do not cover the type of damage sustained
in the Briarwood houses, said Karyn Garsky, a spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance.
Borough President Claire Shulman said she plans to help the families
with damaged houses, noting that if it is the citys fault there will be
reimbursement. If not, some sort of low-interest long-term loan plan can be worked out,
The Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) strongly
recommends that potential homeowners eyeing a house hire a licensed engineer to perform a
survey of the building and its foundation.
Deborah Samuelson, spokeswoman for the citywide non-profit
organization, said its a right all buyers have.
"Anyone has that right, but not many people exercise it" said
Samuelson. "A good engineer report tells you how the house works."
According to Samuelson, hiring a licensed engineer for a survey costs
an average of $350, but the price varies depending on the size of the real estate. "A
good survey should last a minimum of 45 minutes to an hour," she said.
"Theyll take you through everything, [such as] the way the water runs off your
property and how it affects your foundation and basement."
The engineer will also check a houses plumbing, heating, wall
structure and report on the feasibility of any additional construction that can be done.
The NHS offers potential homeowners a list of reputable, licensed
engineers at any one of their three Queens offices. Call 457-1017 for the office in
northern Queens, 291-7400 for the one in Jamaica and 441-3063 for the office in Richmond
If you notice cracks in your home or fear that your house is sinking, call the
Buildings Department central complaint line at 212-227-7000.