Home Asides Along Second Ave., handling buildings with care

Along Second Ave., handling buildings with care

by Benjamin Kabak

As the MTA has dug into Second Ave. along the Upper East Side, the agency has come across buildings that are not up to code. Landlords haven’t ensured that their buildings are structurally sufficient, but instead of fighting in court and potentially delaying the already-delayed subway line, the agency opted to pay for building bracings in the fall. Earlier this week, agency officials promised to do a more thorough examination of the “fragile” buildings along Second Ave., amNY’s Heather Haddon reported. “It really proved to be much more problematic and challenging than was originally thought,” MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu said.

For the authority, this admission is a positive step forward. The Second Ave. Subway represents a unique challenge for the MTA because it is the first subway line built through a densely populated neighborhood marked by very old residential buildings. This city and others around the world simply haven’t witnessed the construction of a subway of this magnitude through built-up neighborhoods in generations. That the MTA is so keen to learn from the mistakes makes me believe that, if Phases II-IV of the SAS ever see the funding they need, the construction efforts will grow markedly smoother after Phase I opens in late 2016.

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Russell Warshay February 26, 2010 - 12:08 pm

How will the MTA translate what they’ve learned from Phase 1 into more efficient construction for the next phases?

Benjamin Kabak February 26, 2010 - 12:14 pm

Well, for one, they won’t run into the same delays in their blasting schedule due to surprisingly unstable buildings. They can counter these problems ahead of time. I don’t think it’ll bring major efficiency improvements to the table, but MTACC will at least now know what it needs to look for.

Alon Levy February 26, 2010 - 11:09 pm

They’re just not going to build the other phases, most likely.

Jonathan February 26, 2010 - 1:05 pm

I love the last sentence of your post. I wish I could be so optimistic.

Christopher February 26, 2010 - 1:42 pm

THis is a very key factor, someone here mentioned how much cheaper things are to build in Tokyo. The average age of buildings in Tokyo (if not all of Japan) is something like 25 years. Earthquakes, rapid development, and no strong preservation movement (nor attachment to specific age in things — even their “old” temples tend to have been built and rebuilt many times) contributes to a very new building stock that we can’t really compare to. Throw in cost savings from things like government run pension plans and insurance that lower labor costs, plus landownership regulations that favor government, and you have much cheaper construction costs.

one February 26, 2010 - 7:01 pm

Government run pension plans and insurance don’t reduce labor costs. They just change who pays for it. On the other hand, not having unions does reduce labor costs. Significantly.

Alon Levy February 26, 2010 - 11:35 pm

Christopher, you’re wrong about Japanese labor costs. In Japan, health care and pensions are tied to employment more so than in most other developed countries; employers are expected to provide cradle to grave welfare for their workers, rather than the government.

Land ownership regulations are basically the same everywhere: there’s private property, and if the government wants to seize it, it needs to prove in court that it’s necessary and provide just compensation. Japan has its own history of anti-seizing NIMBYism, for example when it built Narita Airport. What may be different is willingness to exercise eminent domain. US agencies are sometimes reluctant to take private property ,even when costs are a fraction of benefits, because eminent domain becomes a focal point of NIMBYism.

Christopher March 1, 2010 - 3:53 pm

They are tied to employment yes, but it’s subsidized and paid for by government with only a fraction coming from employers. It’s entirely a government pension system. And rather complex and shifting all the time to adjust for costs. (And includes price controls as well.) Costs are lower per employee for both government and for employers.

Land ownership rules are NOT the same everywhere. And yes, while there is some NIMBY complaints they don’t have much standing in the courts or within government.

But the real cost difference, is that Japan has nothing approaching our preservation movement. (Tokyo is a developers dream with basically no zoning.) The entire country is built over again and again with each successive generation.

Alon Levy March 2, 2010 - 3:49 am

Well, Narita construction dragged for years and had to contend with NIMBY terrorism. So to say that NIMBYs don’t have standing isn’t accurate.

The Upper East Side doesn’t really have zoning, either – the height limits there are the most liberal in the US, and buildings are routinely built higher than anywhere in Tokyo. If you want skyscraper cities you’ll have to go to Hong Kong, not Tokyo.

Pension costs are still there – they’re called taxes, or health insurance. They may be more efficient, but they’re not four times more efficient than in the US, whereas subway construction costs are one quarter those of SAS, which is far simpler from an engineering standpoint.

bob February 26, 2010 - 3:31 pm

I wonder if this issue really belongs to MTA or the construction contractor. Of course MTA CC is mostly contractors and consultants so even if they learn something they’ll be gone before the next project. There is no institutional memory.

It’s not clear from the articles linked how many buildings are actually affected. And many buildings in that area are not very old – from the 1960s or later. And I believe since the 60s the 2nd Ave subway has been in the zoning code to keep building from infringing on the area needed for the tunnel. So if the buildings are weak shouldn’t the builder be responsible?

Certainly there have been plenty of subways built in densely populated areas. I went to a presentation by a senior exec at MTA CC who talked about his experience in Athens. Tapei just built a subway. Mexico City is dense. London has built new lines. There are many more. These big time construction companies are supposed to know how to deal with these issues.

Redbird February 26, 2010 - 5:09 pm


The recent issue with the buildings dealt with 2 apartment buildings. Both were built well before the 1960’s, around the 1930’s if I recall correctly. Older structures like these have stone/rubble foundations that bear on the soil, unlike the high rises along Second Ave which are supported on pile foundations that go down to bedrock.

It should also be noted that the Second Ave construction did not create this issue, it exacerbated it. Prior to any construction beginning, these buildings were already leaning over a foot. It was only when construction caused further settlement that hit a “critical” amount of settlement did the DOB step in. In regard to who is responsible, that has not been answered. The MTA side-stepped this issue and instead opted to stabilize them to continue progress and keep the project from getting further delayed and incur contractor delay claims of $20K-30K per day (according to the MTA).

The design of the launch box was not the contractor’s. It was the design consultant working with the MTA. Assuming the contractor was excavating in accordance with the drawings (benching the excavation and installing the supports), this is not their issue.

JMP February 28, 2010 - 12:48 am

The building at 92nd and 2nd was substantially older than the 1930s.

It had failed a DoB inspection as far back as 2002, but the DoB didn’t act to compel the building’s owner to fix the problem in any sort of reasonable timeframe. The building’s owner then had the chutzpah to sue the MTA, claiming that the subway construction caused the building’s structural problems.

One thing the MTA needs to have happen is to make sure that the DoB not only conducts inspections of buildings before any construction begins, but makes it very clear that any building not brought up to code before the start of construction will be condemned. If a building owner doesn’t want to pay to fix their building, the city can demolish it at their expense. There’s no reason that a building in ill repair should be allowed to delay construction of a major project just because the owner doesn’t want to invest the capital to maintain it properly…

Frank February 28, 2010 - 11:22 pm

“This city and others around the world simply haven’t witnessed the construction of a subway of this magnitude through built-up neighborhoods in generations.”

These challenges are not unique at all. We simply don’t have local expertise because in America we’ve abandoned the concept of expanding infrastructure beyond highways.

Madrid just completed a 7.5km commuter rail tunnel through the core of the city – traversing some very dense neighborhoods that are MUCH older than the upper east side.

Here’s how they did it without disrupting any buildings – at least any visible from the street. (It’s in spanish, but visually easy to understand.)


Maybe we should have hired ADIF/RENFE to build the 2nd Ave subway?

bubalooie March 1, 2010 - 9:23 pm

Hey Frank, I just watched the video and my sense is that our Spanish friends were working with a fairly soft sub-surface; nothing like the swamp water of the 91st-93rd Street stretch or the Manhattan Gnesis of a few blocks south. How long did it take Madrid to do this project?

Alon Levy March 2, 2010 - 6:55 pm

In other contexts, New York area transit agencies prefer hard bedrock, on the grounds that it’s easier to build stations in. That’s the official excuse for boring ESA and ARC so deep underground, at least.

But okay, let’s say it’s the rock. SAS is a line under a 100′ avenue, crossing under nothing. Paris Metro Line 14 goes around catacombs under narrow streets and a river, crossing under multiple existing subway lines. Without looking, guess a) which has had more construction complications and b) which ended up costing more.


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