It probably does not come as much of a surprise to anyone that the Lower East Side is one of the noisiest neighborhoods in Manhattan. Mostly due to the high concentration of bars and restaurants in the area above Delancey Street, the city’s 311 system regularly records more noise complaints on the LES than in any other community, except the East Village. But in the past several months, different types of neighbors, namely two large non-profit organizations, have aroused the ire of some locals.
Months ago, we began hearing complaints from residents of the Seward Park Cooperative, as the nearby institutions, Gouverneur Healthcare Services and the Educational Alliance, raced to complete major renovation projects of their flagship buildings. In recent weeks, those complaints have grown louder, as the two organizations grappled with growing anger from a group of residents concentrated in one section of a Seward Park tower on East Broadway.
The shrillest noises in recent weeks have been hard to miss — a piercing, high-pitched sound coming from the rooftop of Gouverneur, which is finishing up a $250 million modernization program at its Madison Street facility. We were forwarded a letter resident Carol Gellman sent to the head of the NYC Health and Hospitals Corp., outlining the problem. Here’s part of it:
For quite some time, there has been an overwhelming, unbearable, recurrent noise emanating from external equipment on the Madison Street roof, along Jefferson Street on another roof, and along Henry Street just above street level. This repeatedly occurs at all hours of the day and night, frequently on weekends. It goes on for hours or even days at a time; the most recent on 1/24 for over 7 hours. As a health care professional, I am well aware that increased noise levels are detrimental to health and well being. As a recipient of this noise, I can attest to that, having spent many sleepless nights and hours enduring this horrible sound.
Our calls seeking information from the large health center, part of New York City’s hospital system, were not returned. So what we know about the noise issues there comes primarily from local residents, who have been in contact with the institution, as well as Frank Durant, the general manager of the Seward Park Co-op. In a recent phone interview, he said there’s been an ongoing conversation with Gouverneur for three years about both construction noise and sounds from new rooftop equipment. It’s Durant’s understanding that the screeching sound is the result of malfunctioning air intake vents. Engineers are able to make adjustments when the problem occurs, and the noise stops, but unfortunately, the problem tends to occur in the late night hours. More broadly, Durant said, Gouverneur has been addressing concerns about the sustained hum of machinery on its roof. Residents were relieved recently to hear a commitment from Gouverneur to install soundproofing around the equipment.
At the moment, residents we’ve heard from are most concerned about the situation at the Educational Alliance, which is preparing to open the Manny Cantor Center later this month following the $55 million renovation of that organization’s historic home at 197 East Broadway. There’s anxiety not only about the roof equipment but also about a glass-enclosed community space on the top floor.
Domenica Mastroianni is one of about half-a–dozen Seward Park residents who have emailed The Lo-Down about the situation. Here’s a portion of what she wrote:
I live with my husband and 2 children (ages 4 and 7 months) in the Seward Park Coop… on the 12th floor, directly across the street and overlooking the rooftop of the Educational Alliance. Since we moved here in 2006, we have put up with numerous noise disturbances from the Educational Alliance (including rooftop parties). But, I never voiced my concern because I believed that they were doing good work and providing a positive service to the community. Then, the construction started: a massive gut-renovation to help the organization evolve with the needs of the neighborhood. This construction in itself has been a major nuisance. Despite the challenges with this site, I have not complained once over the past year… I didn’t complain because I was hopeful that all of that inconvenience and excess noise would soon come to an end. My hopes were destroyed last month when large mechanical units were installed on the roof of the Educational Alliance and the leadership communicated that there are no plans to enclose them or take measures to dampen the noise that will be generated by their use.
The residents, citing recent sound readings in the immediate vicinity, argue that there’s already an intolerable amount of noise in the neighborhood. In meetings, Educational Alliance executives have stated that it would be premature to commit to soundproofing before the equipment is even turned on and fully tested. Here’s a statement the organization provided to us:
We could not be more excited about the upcoming February opening of the Manny Cantor Center, a state-of-the-art community center that will continue the Educational Alliance’s 124-year commitment to serving Lower East Siders from all walks of life. We have always prided ourselves in being good LES neighbors and that will certainly continue with the opening of the Center. From the beginning planning stages we have worked with community members and expert consultants to ensure that the new facility is a welcome addition to the community, and that includes complying with the city’s zoning and noise codes. We have installed glass windows specifically designed to buffer sound, and instituted a policy regarding the noise levels that can be used in the space. Renters will be required to sign an agreement that if noise becomes a problem, they must turn down or turn off the volume. This is our policy at all of our sites. This room will also be overseen by an on-site staff person, whom residents in the neighborhood can call or email if they hear excessive noise. We will email this contact information to the Seward Park Coop Board and post it on our website when the building opens. Our rooftop compressor equipment, which will operate only when the building is open, has been designed to create less noise than ambient traffic noise. It is not currently on, but after it is balanced, based on engineering studies that have been completed, we are certain that the expected sound from this equipment will be well within city sound ordinances. We understand that there are outstanding concerns among some of our neighbors, with whom we are actively meeting. As part of this outreach, we have committed to have our sound engineer test noise levels after the machinery is on. This is an ongoing dialogue and our doors are always open to the community.
Over the years, one local resident, Ed Green, has been particularly outspoken about noise issues. He was at the center of campaigns to prevent Eastwood, the bar at 221 East Broadway, from obtaining a full liquor permit, to designate East Broadway as a no-truck zone and to compel ice cream trucks to turn off their music when parked, among several other issues. In a recent email, he advocated for a neighborhood-wide approach to reducing noise pollution:
The only solution is for the entire neighborhood to pull together on this, and do our best to lower the noise level. And certainly not to do anything which would add to it. That would be neighborhood spirit. In that spirit, Gouverneur Hospital should do a better job of soundproofing its massive machinery, and Educational Alliance should commit itself, without delay, to do a thorough soundproofing of their roof machinery. And the Precinct should do what, of course, it is their job to do: enforce the law! Because East Broadway is zoned to be a street that prohibits all truck traffic except those for local pickups and deliveries, but as everyone knows, there are many, many trucks all hours of the day and night that drive by, with lots of noise, and they never get a summons for doing that. We need the Precinct to take the law seriously.
In the past week, Rabbi Joanna Samuels, head of the Manny Cantor Center, visited Green in his apartment; Green came away from that meeting encouraged that the two sides are moving closer together.
Meanwhile, leaders of the Educational Alliance plan to meet with members of the Seward Park board sometime soon. In an interview earlier this month, Kate Nammacher, board president, said the co-op takes the noise concerns seriously and has written letters to both Educational Alliance and Gouverneur. But Nammacher said she thinks it’s difficult to assess whether the rooftop machinery is going to be a problem until the Manny Cantor Center opens. “I believe this community sees a lot of benefit from the Educational Alliance… They have responded and I think the issues can be worked out,” Nammacher said.