Are DUMBO’s historic ‘cobblestone’ streets disappearing?

March 22, 2019 Mary Frost
The historic bricks have been paved over near the archway at Pearl Street. Eagle photo by Mary Frost.
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The hand-cut Belgian block paving DUMBO’s historic streets — often mistakenly called cobblestones — are disappearing, either patched over with asphalt or dug up by utility contractors and carted away.

Preservationists say the block is an essential part of the identity of the neighborhood. The old-fashioned streets provide the scenic backdrops for hundreds of films and attract thousands of tourists. But they have deteriorated even more since DUMBO was designated as historic by the Landmark Preservation Commission in  2007.

The city says that any blocks removed by contractors are being stored at New York Paving’s warehouse, and will be replaced during the upcoming Phase 2/3 of the DUMBO/Vinegar Hill Street and Plaza Reconstruction project, a massive, four-year undertaking that will replace water and sewer lines from Main Street to Jay Street and from Front Street to Water Street.

But previous contractors never returned the blocks after past patch jobs were completed, says Doreen Gallo, president of the DUMBO Neighborhood Alliance (DNA). And in cases where they have been returned after construction, the blocks, which were custom cut for each specific street, are replaced into the street-bed willy-nilly, leaving gaps and unsafe surfaces.

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The Pearl Street Triangle. Eagle photo by Mary Frost.
The Pearl Street Triangle. Eagle photo by Mary Frost.

“Under the Manhattan Bridge on Pearl Street between York and Front you have the gigantic Belgian block, and what DOT calls the [Pearl Street Triangle] has flatter, tighter, smaller blocks,” Gallo told the Brooklyn Eagle.

She pointed out that Washington Street’s reconstruction took place after the DUMBO Historic District designation, but that didn’t save the Belgian block.

The renovation “removed the majority of existing hand cut Belgian block, destroying the streetscape of the iconic Manhattan Bridge, and cut through Plymouth Street, destroying the scenic streetscape to the iconic Brooklyn Bridge,” she said.

Gallo points out that the individual blocks — which go for about $500 per pallet of 100 on eBay — are sought after by homeowners for use in driveways and gardens, among other uses.

A matter of interpretation

Utility companies often don't restore the blocks properly after construction, critic said. Eagle photo by Mary Frost.
Utility companies often don’t restore the blocks properly after construction, critic said. Eagle photo by Mary Frost.

NYC DOT says it is documenting what streets the blocks come from, but according to preservationists at the Historic District Council and DNA, the blocks need to be numbered and replaced in the same configuration they were originally laid in. Early municipal photos show the blocks fitting tightly side by side, making a much flatter street surface than the bumpy and irregular surface encountered today.

The law called for utilities to repair the road after digging it up, but how they repair it is a matter of interpretation, Gallo said.

“We’ve lost 50 percent of our streetscapes, probably more since [historic] designation,” she said. “Whoever designed the plan didn’t work with preservationists,” she added.

Long Phase 2/3 buildup, but no comprehensive plan

A 2017 report, prepared for the Historic District Council, outlined ways to restore and repair DUMBO’s deteriorating Belgian block streets while at the same time complying with the mandate that the roadways and sidewalks be made more accessible to the handicapped.

Councilmember Stephen Levin has asked NYCDOT to provide a comprehensive plan to preserve the Belgian blocks while planning street repairs, but a Levin source says the plan has not materialized.

In anticipation of Phase 2/3 of the project, the city has simply paved over streets in deteriorating condition with asphalt. Their plan is to shave the asphalt off and reuse the blocks in the future, the source said. Each time the stones are paved over and have to be reused, however, the blocks themselves become less salvageable.

Tracks, brickwork and pavement beneath the Manhattan Bridge. Photo by Mary Frost.
Eagle photo by Mary Frost.

DOT, however, is under pressure from constituents — both residents and businesses in the neighborhood — to repair the streets in an expeditious manner and remove hazards, Levin’s  source said.

Alexandria Sica, president of the business-friendly DUMBO BID, said her group was on the same page as DNA and other preservationists.

“We all want to see the blocks saved and protected,” she told the Eagle. “The utility companies have to be monitored to make sure all the blocks are put back.”

But she was more optimistic about the outcome.

“We’re  excited that most of the streets are about to get reconstructed using all the old blocks, and made safer for pedestrians, bikes and everyone who uses the streets,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to see more Belgian block than we see today.”

In 2017, DOT spokesperson Scott Gastel told the Brooklyn Eagle, “As part of a full street reconstruction project in the neighborhood, the city will be in large part restoring Belgian block components of the street and in areas requiring ADA upgrades we plan to incorporate the Belgian block structure into the accessible sidewalk components as best we can.”

“The idea that the Belgian block/cobblestone character is disappearing from the streets of DUMBO is not true,” he added.

DOT — Time to get out?

DOT takes up street space beneath the Manhattan Bridge. Photo by Mary Frost.
Eagle photo by Mary Frost.

DNA’s Gallo also says that DOT occupies an extensive amount of DUMBO’s previously open space, “at five separate sites, or nearly the whole of the streetscape underneath the span of the Manhattan Bridge from Prospect Street to John Street.”

“These sections are closed off with chain-link fencing, barbed wire, aluminum siding and particle board and faux grass,” she said. “The formerly grand open spaces underneath the Manhattan Bridge are now eyesores.”

Gallo added that the Manhattan Bridge, “central to our historic district, is a beautifully engineered industrial structure and its under spaces are the heart of DUMBO.”

Sica said she “firmly agreed” that the spaces DOT is using under the Manhattan Bridge “should be opened up to the public. This would provide grand vistas and open up the space and the feeling of neighborhood.”

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