City to cobble together DUMBO streets

DUMBO is about to get stoned — restoned, that is.

In May, the city will start a $20.5-million reconstruction project along Water and Washington streets in the neighborhood down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass, much to the delight of pedestrians, tourists and drivers who have long tripped on the historic, but dangerous, unlevel Belgian blocks.

“What’s very exciting about this project is it’s something that we’ve long advocated for — to not only do the street construction, but the subsurface work to fix the drainage, too,” said DUMBO Improvement District Executive Director Kate Kerrigan, noting the neighborhood’s problems with stormwater and sewer clogs.

The city hopes to start the two-year project in the spring, said a spokesman for the Department of Design and Construction. The $20.47-million price tag is higher than a basic roadwork project, Kerrigan conceded, because it is expensive and time-consuming to preserve and reset the historic blocks.

The work will include Water Street between Old Fulton and Adams streets, Washington Street between York and Plymouth streets, and Old Fulton Street between Front and Furman streets. Engineers will completely replace the water and sewer mains under the street and, when finished, put the famous Belgian blocks back in Water and Washington streets. Old Fulton Street will remain as a modern asphalt street.

Crews will also replace old sewer catch basins as part of the construction, which will help storm water drain faster instead of pooling as it does now.

The extensive work will cause significant traffic disruptions, but Kerrigan said she and the city are working together to address traffic and mobility issues to mitigate the work’s impact. Washington Street is wide enough to allow construction crews to work on one lane while traffic uses the other, but parts of the narrower Water Street may be fully closed.

“The Belgian blocks speak to the history and the real bones of this neighborhood,” she said. “It’s something that we don’t want to give up.”

The granite stones, named for their resemblance to blocks used in Belgian squares, were originally used as ballast for the ships coming to New York at the turn of the 17th century.

Currently, streets in DUMBO have a patchwork look, the result of piecemeal repaving work done over many years. Then again, restoring the historic look of a neighborhood that is one of Brooklyn’s oldest is a mixed blessing, said Water Street Restaurant owner Jeffrey Rodman.

“Driving on and off the holes that are there destroys the car — and it’s not easy on my feet either,” he said. “But, as a businessman, it’s not something I’m necessarily looking forward to.”

Cyclists too are excited about the repairs — currently, it is dangerous and nearly impossible to bike over the massive divots. The manager of Recycle-a-Bicycle’s DUMBO outpost, Susan Lindell, said the cobblestones are traps for a road bike’s skinny tires and are slippery when wet.

“The cobblestones are pretty bad for biking,” Lindell said, who bikes to work from Prospect Heights and knows which bumpy streets to avoid. “The first thing that people who live down here say is, ‘What [kind of bike] is best on cobblestones?’”

Once the work is done in 2011, Kerrigan said she hopes the other streets in the neighborhood can get some help too, and is in touch with the city on that front.