EXCLUSIVE: Neighbors say construction is causing chaos

Residents living adjacent to the Federation of Italian American Organization’s community center, which is currently being erected at the corner of 18th Avenue and Benson Avenue, are up in arms about the project that they contend is now damaging their quality of life.

No one ever told them about the massive construction project before it began, assert Libby and Mel Garofalo, who live on Benson Avenue, right next door to the building which will be six stories tall.

The Garofalos’ troubles began in July, 2011, when excavation started, which made their lives “uncomfortable,” with noise and vibrations. The work then briefly stopped.

Subsequently, on August 4, the Garofalos say they received a letter, dated June 13, from FAIO Chairperson Jack Spatola informing residents of the work, which is required by city law. But the Garofalos said the work had already begun by the time.

On Monday, September 12, Mel said he woke up to deafening banging and shaking. “It felt like there was an earthquake. I got up to look out the window and saw that they were starting to put beams into the ground,” he recalled. “The whole house shook. Stuff started coming off the walls.”

The next day, more of the same occurred. “It was like a jolt. I was so scared,” his wife added. “It was so bad that our 94-year-old aunt living downstairs almost had a heart attack.”

Residents say the clamor went on for about a week – but when it stopped the damage was already done.

Eric Wu, who lives directly behind the building on Bay 19th Street with his wife and two daughters, aged four years and 10 months, said that property suffered. “The floors and walls are damaged in the backyard and the cement floor is cracked,” he explained.

After numerous complaints to the Department of Buildings, inspectors came to both the Garofalo and Wu residences in early 2011 and fined them for various cracks in the cement floor, driveway and retaining walls of their backyards, totaling over $5,000. The Garofalos are also unable to use their carport, they say, because the foundation is cracked due to the installation of the beams.

“We have to prove to them [DOB] that [FIAO] caused the problem,” Libby said. “This is insane.”

Her husband added, “It’s like being guilty until proven innocent.”

Rita Schettini, an FIAO representative, told this paper that all of the work was done by the book. “Everything was done by rules and regulations, so I don’t know what they are saying,” she said. “It’s something beautiful for the neighborhood. I don’t understand. The permits have been there forever.”

But the surrounding families say they are still living in a nightmare.

“The baby can’t sleep and wakes up all day. We have no privacy in our backyard. We are always on show,” Wu said, adding that he does not let his daughter play outside for fear of falling debris. “My oldest daughter said, ‘I used to see stars and the moon and the sun. Now I only see a building.’ I have only been living here two years. If we knew then what we know now….”

Garofalo said it is hard for her to breathe due to the dust and debris. The construction also displaced the family of stray cats she was tending to in the lot that remained vacant for years. “There is dust in the cat food now. I feel bad for them,” she said. “No one comes over anymore. We can’t have barbecues in the yard.”

“The main problem is, they built it and asked no permission,” Wu concluded.

A spokesperson for the Department of Buildings told this paper that the agency has not received any complaints or issued any violations to the construction site, but did issue violations to the Garofalo’s for cracks in the backyard and the side of the driveway.

“Since then, we have no received any complaints about damage,” the spokesperson said. “If residents are concerned, they should call 3-1-1 and an inspector will come.”

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