The city is named after its abundant underground water, and tourists visit and sample the water at fountains throughout the city where the water surfaces.
And just a stone’s throw from the famed Congress Spring pavilion this winter, a contractor hit what may be an underground spring while excavating for the Park Place condominium unit at 262-268 Broadway.
No one seems to know whether the water that Bonacio Construction pumped from the site is connected underground to Congress Spring or any other springs in the city, or whether it was simply rain water that seeped below the surface and got trapped. Or what it will mean to the project or the park if it is Congress Spring.
“Is it groundwater? Is it spring water? We don’t know,” said City Engineer Paul Male.
Currently, city officials said they believe little chance exists that Congress Spring or Congress Park ponds’ water flow will be affected. But the situation raises questions about jurisdiction in these types of situations.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation normally doesn’t get involved when contractors hit water when they’re digging, said spokeswoman Maureen Wren.
City engineer Paul Male said it’s not uncommon for builders to tap into groundwater when they dig down in the city, and in many cases they only have to dig 5 to 12 feet to reach water.
Heavy rainfall in recent years and bedrock under the soil that doesn’t allow the water to flow away are to typically to blame, he said.
The area received 61 inches of rain between August 2005 and July 2006, compared to the annual average of 36 inches.
And it’s common knowledge in the Department of Public Works that water seeps from the hills surrounding the south end of Congress Park.
“There are springs everywhere in there. We’ve put in all kinds of things to take care of the water that weeps out of the banks,” Male said.
Park Place is on one of those hills, at the bottom of which water used to soak the gravel path in the park.
Deputy Commissioner of Public Works Patrick Design said the city dealt with the water in an east bank across from the new development by digging holes and putting in dry wells to capture water, then piping the water into ponds. This week, a few of those pipes were flowing steadily, although DPW has not yet closed the drains for the season, so the ponds are nearly empty.
The valve that allows Congress Spring to come to the surface into the fountain also hasn’t been turned on yet for the season.
Despite the knowledge in City Hall that water is prevalent the area, the city’s Design Review Commission didn’t consider the possibility that springs could be accidentially tapped as part of construction. It served as lead agency in the State Environmental Quality Review process for the Park Place project.
A question on the SEQR form that asked if the project would affect groundwater quality or quantity indicated it would not.
“I’m pretty confident that we never discussed anything with water. It’s news, and interesting news, that something like that could happen,” said Patrick Kane, DRC chairman.
“I certainly wouldn’t want it to put other existing springs at risk,” said Steve Rowland, vice-chairman of the DRC.
When the commission reviewed the proposal, it concentrated mainly on what the buildings would look like and the views from Congress Park, Kane recalled.
“I think we assumed that a significant-sized structure was there at one point. There’s been significant construction there,” he said, referring to the former YMCA at the site.
But the Park Place project includes two floors of parking below the ground, with a hole that Male estimated goes perhaps 16 feet down.
The state Historic Preservation Office, which oversees sites listed on the National Registers of Historic Places, including Congress Park, was not brought in on the SEQR process for Park Place, said James Warren with the state Historic Preservation Office. It’s not required to be, although on occasion some municipalities ask the office’s opinion on proposals for developments adjacent to historic sites, he said.
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