STAMFORD – Before Megumi Yamada moved out of the falling Lofts apartment building, she described what she saw.
Cracks in the walls and ceilings that reappeared as soon as they were repaired. Buckling floorboards in her apartment. Sinking floors in the halls. Leaning pillars in the entryway.
Yamada did not know that The Lofts at Yale & Towne, converted from an old lock factory and the signature building of the multi-billion-dollar Harbor Point development, is the victim of a little-known phenomenon.
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It’s called dewatering.
The Lofts sits on wooden pilings that now – after supporting the 800-foot-long, six-story structure for a century – are rotting. It’s because the pilings are no longer under water. The water table beneath the building has dropped, exposing the pilings to air, which allows the growth of bacteria and bugs that eat wood.
With the pilings deteriorating, the building at 200 Henry St. is rapidly settling. Doors don’t close, windows pop out, and bricks in the facade slip out of alignment.
Tenants of all 225 Lofts apartments had to move out, and the owner, Gaia Real Estate of New York, has determined that the structure cannot be saved. The historic Yale & Towne lock factory, once Stamford’s largest employer, may have to come down.
It won’t be the first time a structure in the city has succumbed to dewatering.
“This is not a unique or new experience in Stamford,” said Rick Redniss of Redniss & Mead, a prominent land-use consultant in the region. “It happened behind Stamford High School.”
That was in 1976, when city officials, responding to complaints about flooding in the neighborhood around Stamford High, replaced aging underground drainage pipes with much bigger ones, and set them deeper in the wetlands that characterize that part of downtown.
The drainage system worked so well that it removed most of the water from the porous soil, creating cavities. Underground, the soil began to sink.
By 1984, houses and garages behind the high school were tilting, cracking and sagging, according to a Stamford Advocate story stored in the Ferguson Library’s Historical Archive.
Arlington Road resident Claire Fishman told the newspaper that one side of her house was 2 feet lower than the other. To demonstrate, her teenage son, Simon, rolled a soup can toward the kitchen sink. It went a few inches, stopped, and rolled back the opposite way.
“It’s like living on a boat,” Simon Fishman said.
Their neighbors, Edward and Luverta Gumkowski, told how their 1920s home, which had 18-inch-thick stucco walls in the basement, was designated a bomb shelter during the Cold War of the early 1960s.
By the 1980s, the Gumkowskis could see daylight through a 3-inch-wide crack stretching across their basement wall.
Wallpaper fell from the shifting walls in the living area, bathroom tiles popped, closed doors and windows had 2-inch gaps, squirrels came in through cracks, and the whole house creaked.
Luverta Gumkowski said she tried to hide cracks and disguise the unevenness of the rooms by hanging things on the walls.
Her Arlington Road neighbors, Ralph and Corinne Boccuzzi, put a jack under their sagging back porch and once a week ratcheted it up to straighten the door jam so they could open the door.
Theodore and Julie Breunich lost two garages to the slow, quiet earthquake of dewatering. One garage was so damaged that the city stopped charging them taxes on it.
The Breunichs’ house was so tilted that the radiators would not drain, and their yard, once flat, came to look like a rollercoaster, Julie Breunich said.
Theodore Breunich offered a description of the city’s drainage project.
“The operation was successful,” he said. “But the patient died.”
Near the end of 1984, State Sen. Anthony Truglia of Stamford contacted the Department of Environmental Protection, which said the situation could lead to structural collapse and rupture of water, sewer and gas lines, and the city should take action immediately. At least 15 homes were affected, DEP said.
A month later, three families sued the city.
By 1990 the city had settled lawsuits with several homeowners, settled out of court with others, and gave cash outright to others. The city bought two homes on Arlington Road for $215,000 apiece, and bought a home on Underhill Street for $225,000. The houses were razed and the lots were resold.
It’s not clear yet what will happen to The Lofts.
A Gaia Real Estate executive told the Stamford Historic Preservation Advisory Commission in April that the company’s insurance carrier will not cover one nickel of the damage caused by dewatering.
Gaia bought The Lofts six years ago from Harbor Point developer Building and Land Technology, which built it in 2010.
Gaia is seeking historic preservation bonuses that will allow it to increase the number of apartments in a rebuilt Lofts to boost revenue to cover the cost of lost rental income, demolition, and reconstruction.
But historic preservation commissioners want Gaia to make its design truer to the look of the original lock factory, and Zoning Board members said they won’t sign off on a rebuild until an independent architect confirms that The Lofts cannot be saved.
Redniss, whose firm is representing Gaia before city boards, said it’s not clear why the water table dropped beneath The Lofts.
“I don’t know what’s been concluded,” Redniss said.
In 1984, Aubrey Mead, chief engineer for Parsons, Bromfield & Redniss, an early iteration of Redniss & Mead, explained how the upgraded storm sewers changed the soil beneath the downtown homes.
Redniss, whose parents worked at the original company, this week addressed the power of water running underground.
“Water has a structural benefit under certain circumstances,” Redniss said. “If you remove it, you remove that benefit.”
In 1984, Public Works Commissioner John O’Brien summed up the dewatering situation behind Stamford High: “It’s some sad disaster.”
In February, Gaia architect Jim Sackett summed up the dewatering situation at The Lofts: “This is a disaster.”