Chirping cranes, buzzing jackhammers, and the singsong of truck backup alarms are the sounds that Matt Reid has been waking up to since the start of Columbia’s Manhattanville construction, which began in 2009. Reid is a resident of 3333 Broadway, a 35-story apartment complex directly adjacent to the north side of Columbia's Manhattanville campus construction site.
And it isn’t just Columbia doing construction in the area: Nearby projects include the MTA’s bus depot construction, Con Edison emergency street construction, and street utility work around the nearby Montefiore Square. Nevertheless, local residents continue to attribute the noise mainly to Columbia.
The Manhattanville expansion is only at its halfway point, and construction is projected to last until 2030—so how exactly does Columbia contribute to noise in West Harlem, and why does it matter?
As I walk from a cubicle on the third floor of the Milstein Center to the Manhattanville construction site at 133rd and Broadway on a Friday morning, I leave my headphones in my backpack. Using an app called dB Meter, which had been recommended to me by noise expert Dr. Marjorie McCullagh, director of the Occupational Health Nursing Program at the University of Michigan, I recorded the difference in decibels between the start and finish of my journey to Manhattanville. While I was studying in the library, my phone measured an average of about 35 decibels, the equivalent of a whisper. As I walked outside along the traffic on Broadway between 125th Street and 134th Street, the levels jumped to an average of 75 decibels. When the overhead 1 train passed by every six minutes or so, the sound level increased to 96 decibels for about 15 seconds.
Here’s a quick rundown on how decibels work. The noise generated by a vacuum cleaner measures around 70 decibels as compared to a jackhammer, which clocks in at around 110 decibels. But decibels are a logarithmic unit, so to relate this to our previous example, the jackhammer would actually be 16 times louder than the vacuum cleaner.
While the sounds of construction aren’t unusual in a New York City neighborhood, West Harlem is already a remarkably loud region of NYC. According to a 2018 New York Times report, it ranks as the fifth noisiest neighborhood in all of the five boroughs based on noise complaints to 311, a 24-hour call system that allows residents access to nonemergency NYC services. The Office of the New York State Comptroller’s report from January 2018 shows that the total number of noise complaints from around the West Harlem area increased from between 61 and 82 noise complaints per 1000 residents in 2010 to between 83 and 122 in 2015. While most of the total complaints in West Harlem come from non-construction noises, the number of construction-related complaints have gone up in West Harlem, especially from 2013 to 2015.
As he gazes outside his window toward two bright red cranes and skeletal buildings, which just block his view of the Hudson River, Reid tells me, “I’ve been here since 2005, and this is the most noise we have ever heard here.”
Columbia has put various measures in place to ameliorate the effects of this noise and has set up several channels of communication for local residents to both learn about and communicate with the University. The 2011 Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions, a contract between the University and the Empire State Development Corporation. The document provides several stipulations that address the noise concerns raised in the 2007 Final Environmental Impact Statement, a list of public health issues posed by the Manhattanville project as documented by a third-party consulting firm for the City Planning Commission. These measures include upper limits on the number of decibels each individual piece of equipment involved in the construction may emit; the regulation that equipment should be electric where possible, be well maintained, and use mufflers; and the requirement of sound barriers.
Noise has been an issue under consideration in the Manhattanville expansion for several years. Chapter 25 of the Final Environmental Impact Statement lists the “Unavoidable Significant Adverse Impacts” that the Manhattanville expansion construction was projected to pose—that is, there is no way to mitigate these effects, nor do alternative construction techniques exist that would still result in a useable campus.
As detailed in Subsection G in Chapter 25, there are certain residential locations that will suffer from “significant noise impacts during construction,” as well as noise produced as a result of traffic attracted by the new campus. These residencies include 3333 Broadway, 560 Riverside Drive, as well as 95 Old Broadway and 1430 Amsterdam, both part of the Manhattanville Houses, New York City Housing Authority public housing units.
I catch Kehinde Ayinde, another resident of 3333, as he heads out for a walk with his puppy. As we speak in the building, we laugh as we’re drowned out by the yapping of his frustrated pup, so I join him on his walk. Ayinde tells me he lives facing Columbia’s construction site. Most often, he works during the construction hours, but on Sundays and Mondays, he has work off and likes to sleep in. Especially on Mondays, like the day we met, the noise wakes him up.
Current guidelines for appropriate noise levels are disputed among researchers, especially regarding residential areas. McCullagh tells me that the Occupational Health Safety Administration's current safe noise standard for work areas is anything up to 84 or 85 decibels. This standard was created for construction workers and other workers who are exposed to construction noise for long periods of time. McCullagh went on to say, however, that these guidelines are “very misleading” and “not true” in the residential context, considering that residents may be in their apartments for a much longer duration than a typical eight-hour workday. On most days, Columbia’s construction lasts for about 10-11 hours.
Dr. Sally Lusk, noise expert and professor emeritus at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, agrees that safe noise limits are “not definitely defined” by the occupational health science community for environments outside of the workplace. She notes that “even at 80 or less decibels, there’s still significant noise annoyance and association with hearing loss and tinnitus in some groups” over time.
Dr. Richard Neitzel, another noise expert and director of the Pilot Project Research Grant Program at the University of Michigan Center for Occupational Health and Safety Engineering, also notes that construction projects can cause health and psychological impacts on residents. Although unfamiliar with New York City noise, when I told Neitzel that the Manhattanville construction plan was about 20 years long, Neitzel told me that since the project is much longer than a standard two-to-three-year development, it will likely create far more disruption to the neighborhood.
But why bother talking about noise? With the added noise brought into the area by construction, come serious short- and long-term health implications that can affect residents who live in the area.
The health impacts of noise pollution are wide-ranging. McCullagh and Lusk fill me in on the short-term effects of noise interferences on sleep patterns and the subsequent disruption of hormone levels. Disrupted sleep also causes a dangerous ripple effect on the cardiovascular and neurological systems.
“We know that the disruption in the sleep cycle puts you at higher risk for hypertension, stroke, and heart attack,” McCullagh says, adding that “it causes fatigue and irritability … impacted learning, and remembering.” She continues, “People’s moods are worse. There’s a greater tendency to gain weight; you are more likely to have a premature birth. Did I mention obesity?”
Prolonged exposure to lower noise levels is especially hazardous for residents in nearby apartments who are retired such as Reid, and his wife, Tiffany Trent, who works at home as a fashion designer. Dr. Arline Bronzaft is a NYC-based noise expert who has garnered citywide attention for her work updating NYC Noise Code and a board member of GrowNYC, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to improve the quality of life in NYC through environmental programs. As a renowned environmental psychologist, she informs me that current noise regulations in NYC need to be updated to take into consideration modern-day work environments.
Bronzaft has done extensive research on the effects of noise exposure in children, including one of her most famous studies in 1975 at an elementary school near elevated tracks of the 1 train in Inwood, at the northern tip of Manhattan. Dr. Bronzaft discovered that children in classrooms facing the train tracks performed far worse in school than those on the quieter side.
“People have to realize that a lot of people work at home today,” Bronzaft explained. “The world is computers—I work at home, I’m a writer. More quiet is demanded during the daytime than it would have been 20 or 30 years ago.”
Manhattanville School of Music student and 3333 resident Ruan Xiong also experiences noise disruption as he tries to work at home. He often studies in his apartment during the day, and finds that the construction noise both from Columbia’s expansion and other sources interferes with his schoolwork.
“I don’t know why, but there is always noise,” Xiong says. Wherever the noise is coming from, he tells me, “it definitely bothers me.”
Rosanna Betances’ sixth-floor apartment in 3333 faces the Manhattanville site. Betances, who is retired, lives there with her son and granddaughter, and says that her family has been struggling with the daytime construction, as her son works an overnight shift and has to sleep during the day. The noise from the construction often disrupts not only Betances herself, but also her sleep.
“I feel tired,” Betances sighs. “You can’t relax; you can’t listen to nothing. You can’t speak on the phone.”
McCullagh tells me many residents in urban environments may do “shift work,” in which they have an evening or overnight work schedule and sleep throughout the day. Since daytime is generally a noisier time for traffic and construction, she says that these residents are at a “huge disadvantage” compared to those residents who work 9-to-5 daytime hours.
As I pace in the lobby of 3333, I meet a woman pushing her two toddlers in a stroller toward the elevator. When I ask her about the construction going on, she tells me that it has been very intrusive in both her and her children’s life. She elaborates that her “babies cannot sleep during the day” for their naps, causing them to be anxious throughout the evening.
Betances shares similar experience, as she tells me her granddaughter sometimes cannot sleep during the day because of construction noise. “When she wants to sleep, she wakes up,” she says.
McCullagh says that children are especially vulnerable to noise because “they are in a very rapid period of learning.” Anything that interferes with that learning, she explains, “tends to delay development and have a negative impact on school performance, as well as behavior.” She cites speech and language as an example of developmental areas that may be put at risk by high levels of noise.
The FEIS claims that all four residencies affected have double-glazed windows, which, in colder months when windows are more likely to be closed, would significantly reduce noise by about 30-35 decibels. As Reid gives me a tour of his apartment, he shows me that he has only one thin sheet of glass shielding his apartment from the outside.
Standing there, I feel very hot air coming from the heater. When I look back at Reid, there are beads of sweat dripping from the top of his head down the side of his face. Reid says that the heater is set at a uniform heat by the building and cannot be lowered, much like the heater in my dorm room where I’d open my window in the winter for cool air. We both walked to his thermostat; it read 81 degrees Fahrenheit. Reid says his only options are to open the windows, which would let in more dust and noise, or to use his AC unit, hiking up his energy bill. “It’s a ‘catch-22,’” Reid sighs.
According to the University, the hours for Columbia’s construction are from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays if schedule or weather requires. Alicia Barksdale, president of the 3333 Tenant Association, jokes that because of Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion, tenants of the building do not need alarm clocks anymore. While construction projects in New York City are technically restricted to 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday through Friday only, and prohibited from doing work during weekends, the city issues a number of after-hours permits each year. A University spokesperson stated that in a limited number of instances for Manhattanville construction, specific activities require work outside of their typical hours; therefore, the project receives all necessary city agency permits in order to do that work.
“At 7 a.m., you hear the drilling, or whatever is going on, in the summertime. … If you don’t hear the crane then you’re really going deaf,” Barksdale laughs.
Columbia uses sustainable and noise-reducing construction equipment and is monitored by a third party for environmental inspections. A University spokesperson noted that additional efforts have been made to combat the increase in noise, including prioritizing electric equipment instead of diesel, reducing noise through construction fences, and lining plywood surfaces with noise reduction blankets. Chapter 23 of the FEIS, titled “Mitigation,” states that Columbia would “make available to tenants … air conditioning units, at no cost to the residents” as mitigation for noise pollution at 3333 Broadway, 95 Old Broadway, and 1430 Amsterdam, which they implemented in 2011.
During warmer seasons, residents could use their ACs instead of opening their windows, preventing construction noise from entering through the open window.
Tenants of 3333 have also indicated that this method of mitigation has several other flaws. In the summer of 2011, 3333 resident Gina Calhoun said that her electricity bill “went from about $70 to about $300 and change,” while another resident Benny Almcar said his jumped from “$70 to about $200.” Many residents, including Reid, Barksdale, and Betances struggle to afford to actually utilize the AC units.
“It’s too expensive,” Bertances tells me regarding Columbia’s AC units. “It’s too much for me. I do not put the [on] AC everyday.”
Columbia offered the units to all residents whose apartments directly face the construction site, going beyond the requirements set by the DCR, which required they be provided only to those on floors 17 and above.
Norma Campusano lives on the far end of the 3333 complex, facing Broadway and away from the construction site, with her teenage children. Campusano, the local female Democratic district leader, who spoke with an Eye reporter in Spanish, says that although her apartment does not face the site of Columbia’s construction, the construction noise still “bothers [her] anyhow.”
Barksdale and many of her tenants have told me that they’ve gotten so used to construction noise, it feels less bothersome than before. But, McCullagh says, in a medical sense, this phenomenon is unlikely to mean that the residents are experiencing fewer of the noise’s effects. Ears, she says, “never adapt to loud noise.” She goes on to say that when residents are around loud noise, they’re “always vulnerable” to hearing and other physical damage.
West Harlem has been identified as one of the noisiest areas of New York City. Although there is no way to quantify the extent to which the University’s construction adds to noise in the neighborhood, and the University has made extensive outreach efforts to the local community, some residents continue to feel that Columbia has expanded without their best interests in mind.
“To me, Columbia is about developing and getting what they can,” Barksdale says. “They’re not concerned about what they’re doing to the people and how it affects the people.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Columbia had provided air conditioning units to residents in 3333 Broadway as outlined in the DCR. In fact, Columbia has exceeded this requirement and offered units to all south-facing windows with sleeves. Spectator and The Eye regret this error.
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