SUNSET PARK — It’s been a rough road for Sunset Park, literally.
The massive water main break at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue on Sunday, Nov. 24 is just the latest in a series of infrastructure issues that have plagued the neighborhood and its residents over the past few years, creating massive headaches for people living and doing business in the neighborhood to go with the massive sinkholes and water main breaks
In August 2015, a 20-foot wide and 20-foot deep sinkhole opened up at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 64th Street, closing the street to traffic. Repairs were finally completed in September 2016, over a year after the hole formed. It had originally been slated to be fixed by November 2015.
Stores near the sinkhole suffered during the intersection closure. “It really created a mess for business there and on the other side,” former Sunset Park Business Improvement District Executive Director Renee Giordano said back in 2016. Not only did the closure reduce traffic to the affected area, but, said Giordano at the time, “An essential need was getting the water back on for the Wash Club laundry business across from the sinkhole.”
The loss of parking spaces was a nightmare for residents, with one man, John Kosciusko, telling this paper at the time, “Some people have to park all the way in Bay Ridge because of the construction. We are running out of options on where to put your car. I don’t know what to do anymore.”
Then, to make matters worse, another sizable sinkhole formed on 56th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in March 2016.
In that case, the problems were traced to “leaks on the private service lines” of two homes, according to Edward Timbers. With homeowners responsible for leaks to the water lines that had failed, it was up to DEP and the Department of Transportation “to backfill the roadway so it can be reopened to traffic,” Timbers said.
One frustrating aspect of the situation, according to Executive Director of the Sunset Park BID David Estrada, is that there has been “capital money on the books for an infrastructure rebuild of Fifth Avenue … on the books for 18 or 20 years, but something else always seems to take priority so Fourth Avenue admirably gets rebuilt with a bike lane, Third Avenue gets accommodations because of all the growth on the industrial waterfront but Fifth Avenue always gets put at the end of the list and it’s ridiculous.”
It’s not only the headline-making sinkholes and water main ruptures that are a problem, Estrada added.
“I’m pulling up to the curb of 5116 Fifth Ave. and the curbs are sinking, the pavement near the bus stop is deformed, water is pooling that won’t drain,” he explained. “There are potholes and sinkholes and manhole covers that sink in, up and down all along the avenue and the cross streets. It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game with these repairs that never address the underlying problem and that’s that the infrastructure serving Fifth Avenue, especially in the heart of Sunset Park, has gone unattended for a generation.”
Community Board 7 Chairperson Cesar Zuniga concurred.
“[The water main break] got me thinking about broader questions about the infrastructure in our neighborhood,” he said. “It’s problematic and it got me thinking about public policy, infrastructure locally and across the region. When you add to that, infrastructure around that transit system, when you add that to that, infrastructure around our housing in Sunset Park, it’s time for us to put into perspective what we need to be focusing on as leaders.”
Given the amount of resources being directed toward Industry City, “It got me thinking,” Zuniga went on. “We are spending all these resources on rezoning for one particular actor, and the infrastructure across our neighborhood is really at its breaking point,” he said. “Why aren’t we having a more comprehensive conversation about how to deal with that, instead of these one-off spot types of rezonings, not just on the waterfront, but all the things that are coming down the pipeline? All of these things are going to have an impact on the current infrastructure so I think this is a good time to be talking about this in a more serious way.”
The fact that DEP hasn’t yet said what caused the water main break has locals worried.
“Regardless of what the cause is, there’s a legitimate concern for people to wonder about how old our infrastructure is. We rely on it and when it goes kablooey, like it did [Sunday], it really begs the question, what do we need to be focusing on,” Zuniga said.
“On any given day, somewhere along Fifth Avenue,” Estrada added, “something is just falling apart. Most of the times, it’s not as obvious as a giant geyser or sinkhole. Most of the time, it’s more like on 51st Street which had a horrible sinking pavement for months that finally got repaved. It’s not hard to walk down the avenue and find basic maintenance items that are going unattended by the city.”
When asked about the constant issues, Zuniga on Sunday contended that “a lot of the underlying infrastructure in and around our community in Sunset Park is deteriorating. It’s not just something that happened today. It’s part of a broader conversation about the infrastructure and I hope that this will get some folks in a room to talk about how we deal with this.”
He also speculated that all the truck traffic the neighborhood deals with could exacerbate the problem.
“At the community board, we’ve been talking about truck traffic and how much more we should see with the development that’s going on, and we’re not having the commensurate conversation about whether our infrastructure ready to support all that development.” Zuniga said.