Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Memorial Baptist Church Old Fashioned Crack Tent Revival

Its simply carved cornerstone reads "M. B. C. 1891".

Been a while since I've seen the inside of the Memorial Baptist Church. Has it been over seven months already? I probably had good reason. It's always been a very real possibility that if I should ever enter any house of worship, I'd be struck down by a bolt of lightening, smitten with a burning ague, or even dashed to shards, like a potter's vessel, with rods of iron no less. Best case scenario would have me escape with my skin, but somehow I'd be left in charge of the church's coffee hour, for ever and ever and ever slicing bagels and pouring O.J. into little Dixie cups on into everlasting eternity.

It was heart stopping to say the least, my most recent visitation. Judging by the progress being made by the cracks in the Church's auditorium, I might also add "being overtaken by tumbling walls" to my fears list.
Last January the newly acquired 20' long vertical cracks could be described as "hairline". In these new photos from early August, the same set of cracks has opened considerably. Additional cracks have recently been discovered along the western wall as well now. Just when you think the worst is over, additional cracks show up.

On the outside of the building a set of basement stairs is literally crumbling to pieces as it pulls away from the foundation. A single cock-eyed crack monitor stands watch, its bulls eye, strained off center, testifies to the fact that the Earth has indeed moved away in an opposing direction. Is there any danger of the whole place returning to dust in one mighty end-times cataclysmic rush? The foundation has stood the test of time. up until now.

Your Mortar Salvation Awaits

More than once I have seen in our neighborhood, the redemptive talents of brick masons save a wretch of a building from almost certain damnation. Three Hundred Ninety Six 15th Street comes to mind. Maybe even 1504 8th Avenue... or maybe not, it's too soon to tell if that one can be saved.

Who, what, where, and ... when!?

Back on the 5th of June, owners from some of the adjoining properties, including the Pastor of Memorial Baptist Church for the last 18 years, Stephen Christopher, met with Brooklyn's Department of Buildings Commissioner Mr. Magdi Mossad to discuss the recent 406 15th Street Armory Plaza developments. In the company of Com. Mossad was Assistant Chief Inspector Bernard Ross, Inspectors D'Alessio and Ronshle, (or is it Ronshle and D'Alessio?), Forensic Engineer Tim Lynch, and the DoB Community Liaison Ken Lazar. Also in attendance Jeremy Laufer and Aaron Brashear from Community Board 7, Anne Schaetzel from Assemblymember Jim Brennan's office, and last but not least, playing host to the meeting, Community Liaison Tom Gray from City Council member Bill DeBlasio's office.

How this meeting actually came to be is kind of a mystery. Out of the blue, a call came from Councilmember DeBlasio's office asking residents if they were planning to attend an informational sit-down with members of the Buildings Department. "What meeting?", was their reply.
Previously Jim Brennan had been helping locals navigate through the DoB's bureaucracy from the project's start. He arranged for their first audience with then Brooklyn Buildings Commissioner Susan Hinkson after residents discovered that the DoB had "erroneously" issued new building permits for Mr. LoCicero to build his 9 story "Armory Plaza Yeshiva Faculty Housing Dormitory".

Crazy as this sounds, apparently not one of the 16th St. homeowners ever got an invitation. Although this special event had been scheduled for some time in advance, ultimately for the benefit of adjoining property owners, they found out it was "happening" with less that 24 hours notice. No one thought to include them. Maybe the invitations... fell through their cracks?
A little side note: When it looked like none of the 16th Streeters would be able to attend at so short a notice they tried to reschedule. The residents were told no, that the meeting would go on as scheduled, with or without their presence. Tough love, to say the least. One neighbor, unable to take off from work, arranged for a conference call so she could at least listen in to the proceedings.

The exact agenda for this meeting was unspecified. It wasn't made clear whether the DoB would even be open to answering questions posed by property owners.

Information replaces fear?

So the meeting was held exactly at 12 noon in a small conference room at the back of DeBlasio's Windsor Terrace office. Com. Massad began speaking by providing a brief description of what steps the Department is/was/had implemented in order to protect the public during the ongoing construction of the Armory Plaza's foundation. He chose to begin the official script starting in July of 2006 with the damage to the foundation and facade of 1504 8th Avenue and the subsequent Orders to Vacate. We at IMBY seem to recall that the story should have begun, "Once upon a time, way back in April 2005,"

(Selective memory loss always helps when one attempts to rewrite history.
Check out the
Buildings Information System. That's where anyone off the street can find the real time line.)

Before 1504 8th Avenue fell to pieces in July of 2006 there were already Buildings violations and Environmental Control Board Violations on the books from previously damaged properties dating back to April of 2006.

The Commissioner detailed the remedial steps taken by his office since July. Steps which included installing crack monitors and the scheduling of numerous (dozens?) controlled inspections of the excavation site by the Department's Special Forensic Engineering Unit. He also mentioned that a new engineering firm, Demerara Engineering, PLLC, was enlisted in March of 2007 to take over the controlled inspections at the site. It never was clear if this was at the DoB's suggestion. I wonder what happened to the first engineering company who designed and oversaw the project?

As for the meeting, I must say there were several times early on when the thing teetered on the brink of disaster. Decorum broke down, giving way to angry confrontations as property owners and DoB representatives threatened to walk out on each other. There seemed to be conflicting opinions on just how successful the new safety measures had been at turning things around. In more ways than one, there was very little available wiggle room . Maybe holding the meeting in such a small, enclosed office space, excited peoples natural fight or flight response. If it wasn't for Anne Schaetzel banging her shoe on the table top, finally restoring order, I'm certain the meeting would have ended with some sort of honor killing . In the end both sides agreed on at least one thing. The contractors are not very nice guys.

Reading the warning signs.

For one example brought up during the meeting , NYC Forensic Engineer Timothy Lynch, answering criticism that the DoB had not listened to the homeowners previous (before July of 2006) complaints about large sink holes forming, and that they feared their homes were in danger of being knocked off their foundations by the boring and pile driving, responded by saying that after the July Stop Work Order, a kinder, gentler, less invasive, duplex-boring technique had been specifically required, and that this in its self should have taken care of any future "damage to adjoining property" problems. Home owners in attendance disagreed. "Yes, we noticed a slight change for awhile... but only for a few days... that is until the contractors reverted back to their old style of boring with a vengence and then the situation actually got far worse with cracks forming overnight".
The DoB seemed both surprised and frustrated at hearing this new report about the contractors' lack of compliance. "What about all those controlled inspections?", the homeowners asked. Everyone within several blocks could testify to the banging and shaking. Surely it's not something done easily on the sly.

I told you so...it's for your own good.

In the end, listening to the DoB's side of the story only reinforced home owners worst fears. That despite constant monitoring, and plenty of 311 calls, DoB officials were still unable to control the contractors and the deteriorating conditions at the job site. That they had mistakenly placed their trust, and property, in the hands of government employees in the hope everything would somehow end happily ever after. What's even worse is that it seems DoB officials are allowing the contractors to continue working out of fear that if they stopped and did not finish their foundation, even more damage could result to the homeowners property.

They need to abandon their denial mode tactics. Hiding in the in the subcellar until the storm blows over isn't working. The shame is, and we at IMBY believe in the power of shame, have said this many, many times before, the damage was entirely preventable. There was plenty of prior warning. As what would become the afternoons mantra, to be repeated many times during the meeting, "Why are we here. This meeting is a year too late."
But now what to do that the damage is done, the boring and pile driving is over, and the surrounding soil is still unsettled? Conflict resolution time. Bring on the engineers and the lawyers.

"But wait, all is not yet lost. Fear not, and have ye faith, for your walls are held fast. There is a crack monitor on thee." So saith The Department of Buildings.

One good thing that came out of this meeting was that inspectors finally went out that same afternoon and inspected the damage to surrounding properties. That's how crack monitors got placed on the Church's interior wall and outside steps. Seen as a good faith gesture that the Department would take future complaints more seriously. The DoB inspection reports must have had some impact on the developer's new engineer as a few weeks later some home owners received letters from Demerara Engineering requesting that they be allowed to inspect the damage for themselves and, like "good neighbors", perform all necessary engineering tests of faith and measures, including soil borings, to insure the future safety of surrounding properties.

The Temple walls are crackin', now what?
For some the damage to the Memorial Baptist Church may be read as a sign. A geo technical test of faith. A belief is held amongst some Christians that the future of worship will not take place within a traditional brick and mortar church building at all. Ordinary faithful folk will come together to hear the Gospel where ever there is a place and a need, not unlike the first wandering Christians. Maybe the congregation of Memorial Baptist Church is being tested by this siege upon their walls. What will they do if their temple walls come tumbling down? I have no doubt that they will pitch a tent, after acquiring the proper permits of course, and begin anew the very next Sunday or, as soon as the dust settles, which ever comes first. For now there are engineering and legal bills to pay. Repairs have been put on hold until the extent of the damage and the means to fix it can be arrived at.

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