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Fight Over Glass Blocks Halts Sidewalk Work at 5th and Broadway

By Eric Richardson
Published: Tuesday, December 01, 2009, at 11:32PM
Temporary Sidewalk Eric Richardson [Flickr]

Plywood covers halted sidewalk reconstruction outside the Jewelry Trades building at 5th and Broadway. The property owner and the City disagree on how the sidewalk should be rebuilt.

For the past two weeks, a thin layer of plywood outside the Rite Aid at 5th and Broadway has covered a controversy over how to rebuild Broadway's fragile sidewalks.

Property owner Mideb Nominees wants to replace 200 feet of crumbling concrete with a new, reinforced span. The City, though, has put the work on hold, telling the developer that removed glass block panels were "character-defining features" of the historic property and must be replaced. Mideb says that its plans were already approved and that it doesn't believe the glass blocks are protected.

Caught in the middle are Broadway pedestrians and the residential redevelopment of the 1913 Jewelry Trades building.

Mideb Vice President Greg Martin isn't pleased. "We still believe we have a valid permit," he said. "They have a process. We followed it."

The story starts nearly 90 years ago, when A.C. Bilicke and R.A. Rowan & Co. set out to build a new home for the Title Guarantee & Trust company. Like many structures of the time, the building's basement was extended out under the sidewalk, reaching nearly to the roadway. The glass block panels were placed in the sidewalk to allow light to reach the space below.

Over the years, moisture has penetrated the panels, corroding the metal inside and crumbling the approximately three-inch thick concrete.

A 1978 report commissioned by the City didn't mince words when it came to the safety of Broadway sidewalks between 5th and 6th. "It is our opinion," wrote Tom Kamei of Tom Kamei Associates, "that the buckled and chipped surfaces of the skylights, voids created by missing glass inserts, together with the deteriorated condition of the steel beams, reinforcing bars and pressed metal forms present a hazardous condition to the pedestrian traffic."

Yet for two more decades, all the sidewalk saw was patches and minimal repairs.

After the collapse of a two-foot by six-inch section of panel in early October, likely when a heavily-loaded cart was rolled over it, Martin decided that it was time for a full-scale replacement. Mideb had been working on plans for such a project, and had been working on them with Building and Safety since August. On October 16, the department signed off on the plans and work began shortly after.

On November 18, the City delivered Mideb an order to halt the work, saying that it required "further review of field conditions and specifications for the proposed improvements." A letter delivered to the firm on Tuesday said that permits for the job had been issued incorrectly, and that the City required restoration of the "character-defining" glass blocks.

Martin, who questions the City's assertion that the blocks are a protected element of the Broadway National Historic Register District, believes that the preservation discussion ignores safety. "They've completely glossed over the public safety hazard," he said. "They not just glossed, they've ignored it."

There are glass block replacement options that provide for structural support. Circle Redmont, a Florida company, manufactures precast concrete glass block panels that are used as replacement pavers by the New York Transit Authority in high-traffic areas. Martin said his firm is still considering its options on how to move forward.

On hold with the sidewalk project is the residential conversion upstairs. DWP is requiring Mideb to install an access hatch in the sidewalk, and will not transfer power over to new switching equipment until it is installed. The 62-unit building will open once that is done and life safety equipment testing can be completed.

In the meantime, Broadway pedestrians might have to make do with plywood for just a bit longer.


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