Ditmas Park

Brooklyn homeowners wall-eyed at city demand they inspect Q-train trench

November 7, 2019 Reuven Blau and Jose Martinez, THE CITY
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This story was originally published on Nov. 7 by THE CITY. 

Owners of Brooklyn homes perched next to a trench used by the Q and B subway lines say they were stunned to receive letters from the Department of Buildings last week informing them they’re violating city codes.

The letters also demand that owners immediately inspect and submit technical reports — including photographs and diagrams — documenting the condition of retaining walls next to the train tracks.

The “commissioner’s order” issued by DOB Commissioner Melanie La Rocca makes no sense, they say, because the century-old walls are MTA property.

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“The city just totally screwed up,” said Blake Morris, a lawyer and community activist who got a violation notice at his Ditmas Park home on East 16th Street, between the Cortelyou Road and Newkirk Plaza train stations. “And got everybody really crazy because the notice of violation has very serious penalties for noncompliance.”

Under a 2008 law the City Council passed after a section of wall under a Washington Heights co-op complex collapsed onto the Henry Hudson Parkway, property owners with retaining walls at least 10 feet high that face a “public right of way” must hire a qualified retaining wall inspector to check on the barriers every five years.

Homeowners who don’t file assessment reports within 60 days of receiving a violation notice can face penalties escalating over time into thousands of dollars.

Affected Flatbush and Ditmas Park residents, many living in landmark districts of Victorian homes, say they know the MTA is responsible for the retaining wall next to their homes because the state negotiated individual easement agreements attached to their properties when the tracks were built in the early 1900s.

And they’re steamed about getting slammed with violations without any warning.

“These subway walls have existed for about 100 years,” said Joel Siegel, president of the Ditmas Park West Neighborhood Association. “The first notice to residents of this matter was a violation notice. This is hardly an appropriate way to go.”

‘Keeping New York City safe’

A Buildings Department spokesperson, Andrew Rudansky, said the inspections are all about protecting the public.

“Keeping New York City safe and ensuring our buildings aren’t a danger to residents and neighbors requires property owners to do their part,” he said.

He noted the law exempts retaining walls adjacent to transit stations but not rail lines, which the Buildings Department considers public rights of way.

The department has issued 363 retaining wall inspection violations in Brooklyn this year, he said.

Ditmas Park homeowner Blake Morris. Photo by Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Rudansky added that the department will rescind violations where a property owner can provide “evidence that the retaining wall is not the homeowner’s responsibility.”

In spots visible to subway commuters, the walls show signs of wear, including cracks and crumbling.

A spokesperson for the MTA said the agency was unable to immediately discern the status of the walls that border the Brighton Line, a major corridor through Brooklyn.

Dangerous tracks

Homeowners say that inspecting the walls would require an expert to walk alongside the electrified and busy train tracks, a dangerous and illegal move. They also question the wisdom of asking individual homeowners to tackle possible repairs on the retaining wall in a piecemeal fashion.

Rudansky said the inspections can be conducted “visually” by checking for bulging, leaning or cracks without going onto MTA property.

Homeowners can also contest the violation “if they believe a retaining wall isn’t on their property or thy have an easement with the MTA,” he added.

That’s little solace to homeowners in the area.

West Midwood couple David Newman and Ellen Bilofsky, who have lived in the neighborhood for 37 years, said they were “totally blindsided” when they got a violation notice.

They and other homeowners are urging the Buildings Department to withdraw the violation notices, investigate who built the walls, and consult with the MTA.

Morris is crossing his fingers that the bureaucrats will reconsider: “I’m hoping that when we speak to Buildings they’ll crack the whip and send out another letter to hundreds of people saying, ‘Never mind.’”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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