The Leaning Tower of Seaport

One Seaport, also known as 161 Maiden Lane, as seen from the East River.
A 670-foot residential building now under construction in the South Street Seaport neighborhood is leaning precipitously north and east, according to a lawsuit filed against the developer by one of its former contractors. The tower, known as One Seaport, is located at 161 Maiden Lane (on the corner of South Street) and is 58 stories tall.

In a story first reported by the Commercial Observer, a suit filed in March with the New York State Supreme Court by building contractor Pizzarotti alleges that the 161 Maiden Lane, “is leaning, as a rigid body, outside of its vertical control,” and, “is now exhibiting a bowing or curve in its verticality that is due entirely to said leaning.” The suit also claims that, “the building… has settled and moved to such a degree that the structure is encroaching on a neighboring property line.”

The overall tilt of the tower is currently alleged to exceed three inches, with Pizzarotti’s court complaint arguing that, “the building is still moving as the foundation continues to settle and as additional load is added to the structure.” While none of the parties involved in the litigation have claimed this degree of slant poses any imminent danger of the structure falling over or collapsing, it may raise other safety concerns. The contractor’s court filing anticipates, “impacts [that] can range from inoperable windows to breaking windows and components falling to the street,” along with concerns about the ability of elevators to operate in shafts that are not truly vertical, and the possibility of design elements attached to the facade coming loose in strong wind conditions. Finally, the firm’s court pleading also warns ominously that, “depending on the severity of the ongoing movement, structural concerns for the building also arise.”

At issue is the subterranean footing that provides foundational support to the building. Pizzarotti argues that the developer, Fortis Property Group, rejected the option of driving piles several hundred feet down into bedrock to buttress the tower. Instead, the contractor claims, Fortis chose the less-expensive method of “soil improvement” to shore up the soggy group near the East River waterfront, topped with a concrete slab. “Cost was [Fortis’s] primary consideration in electing to proceed with the soil improvement foundation method, rather than deep foundation piles driven into bedrock,” Pizzarotti alleges, while also claiming that details of this work were never shared with the contractor.
A rendering of the structure (as seen from street level in the South Street Seaport)  which is alleged to be leaning precariously out of vertical alignment.
A spokesman for the Fortis Group said in a statement that, “this lawsuit is patently false from start to finish and nothing more than simple defamation and a desperate attempt by a failing general contractor to divert attention from the fact it defaulted on yet another New York City project. As a number of prominent New York City developers have learned the hard way over the past few years, Pizzarotti is simply incapable of buying out, managing and completing a construction project within contractually promised timelines.”
This local drama reprises a similar controversy now playing out in San Francisco, where the Millennium Tower residential building (also 58 stories and more than 600 feet tall) has subsided more than 18 inches into the surrounding soil since the building opened in 2009. During the same period, that structure has also leaned over by 14 inches. As with One Seaport, this condition is believed to stem from the developer’s decision not to drive piles into the bedrock beneath the tower. (The Millennium Tower is now facing a remediation project that would install such piles, which is projected to cost more than $100 million.)

This situation may serve a cautionary tale for developers and community leaders in the South Street Seaport, where multiple, large-scale development projects are currently under way, or in the planning phases. In particular, the possibility that the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio may move ahead with a massive building project to extend the East River shoreline by as much as 300 feet could have significant implications for buildings that are not physically connected to bedrock. This arises from the fact that any change in the level of the water table, beneath the surface of the ground, can play havoc with foundation systems that rely on the firmness of the terrain.
In an all-but-forgotten chapter from local history, an entire Lower Manhattan neighborhood was effectively destroyed when construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in the late 1940s caused a drop in the nearby water table, which had the effect of destabilizing the foundations of dozens of surrounding apartment buildings. All of these structures then had to be condemned, which was the death knell for the enclave known up to that time as “Little Syria.”
Matthew Fenton

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