Between a block and a hard place: Plan to revamp Dumbo plaza and nearby Belgian-block streets draws mixed reactions

Between a block and a hard place: Plan to revamp Dumbo plaza and nearby Belgian-block streets draws mixed reactions
Photo by Zoe Freilich

They don’t want chips off these old blocks!

Some preservationists are crying foul over a city scheme to remove and reshape historic Belgian blocks from Dumbo and Vinegar Hill streets as part of a plan to make changes to a plaza that they said neighbors don’t even want — and never signed off on in the first place.

“There are changes that have not been agreed to,” said Aldona Vaiciunas, who heads the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association civic group. “Replacement of those would be destructive and irresponsible — it’s really pissing me off.”

Department of Transportation workers will remove the ancient stones from swathes of Gold, Main, Adams, Jay, Plymouth, Water, Front, and Pearl streets, as well as Anchorage Place, to inspect, clean, and smooth them in the city’s ongoing, $105-million effort to make the roads handicapped-accessible, according to a presentation the agency shared with the Brooklyn Paper, which also showed officials will demap Anchorage Place between Plymouth and Front streets to execute a years-in-the-making project to expand the triangular Pearl Street Plaza bounded by those streets.

New and improved: The city plans to revamp the Pearl Street Plaza, but some locals are not happy.
Department of Transportation

But the agency — whose plan to spruce up the plaza and streets within the Dumbo and Vinegar Hill Historic Districts already received the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s approval — failed to share the latest iteration of the scheme, including its work on the Belgian blocks, with locals before pressing forward, Vaiciunas claimed.

“Why are they sharing this with the press before sitting down and talking with us?” she said.

And improving Pearl Street Plaza’s painted asphalt with new tables, chairs, umbrellas, bleachers, and lights that illuminate the archways beneath the Manhattan Bridge will be a waste if it means chipping away at the Belgian blocks that comprise its surrounding streets, according to another local leader.

“We want it to be historic, not some crappy plaza,” said Doreen Gallo, who heads the Dumbo Neighborhood Alliance civic group. “It just feels like it can be reevaluated. It’s a landmarked, important part of our history, and they should get it right.”

Old meets new: A rendering of what the handicapped-accessible cobblestones will look like, next to the rails and original Belgian Blocks.
Department of Transportation

The work continues a project the city began years ago, during which Belgian blocks on Washington Street and parts of Water Street have already been removed, reshaped, and reinstalled. The latest phase is expected to kick off next spring and wrap by 2024, according to a Transportation Department rep, who said that agency kicked in $45 million for the scheme, and the Department of Environmental Protection foot the bill for the rest.

Last year, false reports led residents to fear the city would permanently rip out the 18th-century blocks in its effort to improve accessibility on Dumbo and Vinegar Hill streets.

But officials quickly put the kibosh on the rumors, explaining they would instead excavate, clean, and smooth out all stones that can be salvaged, and replace any that can’t with new ones — a procedure the Transportation Department rep reconfirmed ahead of next year’s street work.

Still, even rehabilitating the Belgian blocks will chip away at the character they bring to neighborhood streets, according to Vaiciunas, who worried that the reshaped stones may prevent grass from peeking through the cracks between them on roads including Water and Plymouth streets during the warmer months — a quirk residents have grown to love, she said.

New streets: The city plans to reconstruct old streets throughout Dumbo and Vinegar Hill, replacing breaking Begian blocks with ones that are handicapped accessible.
Department of Transportation

“We all like that they give character to the neighborhood,” Vaiciunas said.

Others, however, applauded the plan to make what they said are much-needed changes to the neighborhoods, where crumbling streets are a daily nuisance to locals and visitors alike.

“The streets of Dumbo and Vinegar Hill are completely broken, they are dangerous to drive on with huge holes and uneven cobblestones,” said Alexandria Sica, who runs the commerce-boosting Dumbo Business Improvement District. “This is a very critical infrastructure project.”

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
Falling apart: The old Belgian blocks.
Dumbo Business Improvement District