Stamford Officials Express Shock as Receding Water Table Blamed for Structural Collapse

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STAMFORD – Members of the Board of Representatives said they were taken aback when they heard that Harbor Point’s signature building, The Lofts at Yale & Towne, is falling apart.

The owner told a city commission this week that The Lofts, a 225-unit apartment building converted from the century-old Yale & Towne lock factory, must be demolished.

The wood pilings that support the building are rotting, the structure is tilting and sinking, the facade is shifting vertically and horizontally, walls are cracked, floors are slanted, and window and door frames are bowed, the owner said.

The Lofts, which opened in 2010 on Henry Street, was the first building in Harbor Point, a community of luxury high-rises in the once-industrial South End that developer Building & Land Technology bills as “the new heart of Stamford.”

“I was absolutely shocked to see that the building has to come down,” city Rep. Eric Morson said.

“I was very surprised,” city Rep. James Grunberger said. “People put their lives in a building. When they lie in bed at night they have an expectation that it isn’t going to move.”

Gaia Real Estate, a New York company that bought The Lofts from BLT six years ago, ordered ⅔ of the tenants to move out last summer. Gaia engineers tried to devise a plan for shoring up the foundation, but now say the building continues to move. 

The remaining tenants must be gone by the end of this month – most have already left – and Gaia is pursuing a plan to construct a new building with concrete pilings drilled into bedrock.

The turn of events is stunning, said city Rep. Jeff Stella, chair of the board’s Public Safety Committee, which has been reviewing the situation at Harbor Point.

“The Lofts was a symbol of change for the old South End. It was about bringing new life,” Stella said. “Now it’s coming down? It’s a shame. It creates a sense of mistrust about how things are being built here.”

City Rep. Bradley Bewkes said he is trying to get his head around the reason the six-story building is failing. A Gaia vice president told the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission Tuesday that the water table beneath The Lofts has receded, exposing the timber pilings to air, which triggers deterioration.

“The Lofts is the signature building of Harbor Point, and the historic one,” said Bewkes, chair of the Land Use Committee, which is also reviewing the issue. “My response is a little bit of shock that that is how the structure worked – that there are wooden supports and you have to somehow rely on the water table staying the same or they’ll rot.”

City Rep. Virgil de la Cruz, a retired engineer, said he was startled to hear The Lofts will be torn down, but he immediately grasped the wood-and-water problem.

“There is a similar situation in Boston,” de la Cruz said. “Boston has been dealing with it for quite some time.”

Since 1986, in fact.

That was when the Boston City Council set up the Boston Groundwater Trust to monitor subsurface water in parts of the city where buildings sit on timber pilings, some of them 200 years old, according to BostonGroundwater.org.

As Boston grew, basements and sewers and water systems were built. So were subway and highway tunnels and other subsurface structures that disrupted the water table. When they leak, water is pumped out, drawing groundwater levels down, the website explains.

On the surface, buildings, parking lots, sidewalks and roadways were constructed, reducing the amount of earth open to the rain that feeds groundwater supplies.

The result beneath the ground is that wood pilings, no longer underwater, are exposed to oxygen, which allows growth of microbes and insects that consume wood. 

As wooden supports weaken, buildings sink and tilt and crack.

Gaia went before the commission seeking opinion on designs for a new structure that would qualify the company for a historic preservation designation that will allow more units. Gaia must build more apartments for the replacement project to be financially feasible, especially since its insurance policy does not cover sinking buildings, the Gaia vice president said.

A BLT spokesman Friday declined to comment on the situation at The Lofts. 

The city is inspecting eight other BLT buildings in Harbor Point after the collapse of a concrete slab at one of its Pacific Street high-rises, Allure, on Feb 1. The probe so far shows that the slab did not have reinforcing cables as called for in the design.

“The problem at The Lofts comes down to the people who initially thought this out and felt it was safe. They missed something. We have to look into this,” Stella said.

“I believe the Board of Representatives has items on the agenda as to how building inspections are handled, so there will be active discussions into the procedures,” de la Cruz said.

Grunberger said the city needs “more checks and balances” on construction practices.

“Construction should not be stopped or slowed, but it needs to be supervised more rigorously,” he said. 

Morson said Mayor Caroline Simmons’ call for a review of the eight buildings “is a welcome first step.”

“The board and the administration have to work hand-in-hand for the oversight required to look into this and make sure we identify whatever problems still lay out there,” Morson said. “As a city, we have to take the results from that and hold people accountable if need be. We have to protect the safety and property of the people who live here. It’s the reputation of the city that’s at stake and we all have a vested interest in that.”


Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 733-6811

a.carella@ctexaminer.com