Newark home not so sweet: sink hole forces owners to move

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on July 21, 2014

Emmett Gourdine and his wife,Patricia Williams, stand near a fence near that is buckled because it runs over a sinkhole. They are in the process of moving out of their University Estates townhouse, which has been condemned by the city after an independent engineer they hired determined that their house was not sound structurally due to the shifting soil underneath. For the past month, she and her husband have been packing. Other residents in the 40 home development are worried, because they feel construction of a supermarket across the street is making the problem worse.


NEWARK — The dining room table should have been a quick fix for Emmett Gourdine.

He slid a sliver of wood underneath the base to make the table level, but a month later he noticed it was off-kilter again. So he straightened out the table once more, and when that didn’t work, he knew right away there was trouble.

“Aw hell, this don’t look good,” Gourdine said. “Something is not right.” The townhouse in Newark that his wife, Patricia Williams, fell in love with seven years ago began falling apart last summer.

Cracks started appearing in the foundation and the brick facade. The dining room window was crooked and the floor slanted enough so that you knew you were on an angle. Outside, the ground now slopes and a wrought-iron gate installed by the homeowners association is buckling.

And to think this all started with that table, the first sign of bad news that never got better for this retired couple.

An independent engineer they hired confirmed their fears — a possible sinkhole, and it could get worse.

“It’s terrifying,” Williams said. “You can’t hardly sleep.”

Newark condemned their $370,000 dream house last month, and now they’re racing to get out.

“We keep pushing because we’ve got to,” Williams said. “We don’t know if we’re going to end up in a sinkhole.”

The neighbors are on edge, wondering who’s next at University Estates, a landscaped complex of 40 trendy homes at Boston and Richmond streets. Only blocks from downtown Newark, the neighborhood was built in 1987 by Donald Harris of Vogue Housing and became the catalyst for middle-class living, spurring the rise of Society Hill, an adjacent townhouse community.

Homeowners say the sinkhole has been developing since they alerted the city three years ago after several smaller ones surfaced when it rained.

Lisa Parker, former president of the homeowners association, said city engineers explained that drainage pipes laid by the developer were not connected to their homes or to Newark’s storm lines on South Orange Avenue.

“Where is our irrigation system here?” Parker said. “Everything is settling into the land and that is causing the foundation to corrode.”

Harris said plans for the drainage system never called for a connection to the city’s storm lines. He said the system, which was approved and inspected every step of the way, was professionally designed to feed rainwater onto a splash plate. From there, the water goes into the drainage system where over time it is discharged into the ground.

“I’ve always been a socially responsible entrepreneur and developer and I never cut corners, nor did I cut corners on University Estates,” he said. “I am professionally and personally pained by this attack, because we did nothing wrong.”

After Williams and Gourdine told the association about their crumbling home, residents met recently with the city’s new administration and their Central Ward councilwoman, Gayle Chaneyfield, who also lives there. She brought aides from Mayor Ras Baraka’s office as well as Andrea Adebowale, the city’s acting director of the Water Department.

Adebowale told homeowners the drainage pipes were examined and repaired in 2011, but Parker insisted that didn’t happen. The city, she said, filled in gaps with dirt. Adebowale said the city would re-examine the pipes.

“Once we assess that and we get a copy of the structural engineer report, we’ll put together a plan to abate the whole condition,” she said.

A day after the meeting, Newark’s engineering director, Mehdi Mohammadish, looked at Williams’ sagging home and told her he would find what caused the sinkhole to develop so quickly.

Homeowners said the ground started caving rapidly in recent months when construction began across the street for Springfield Avenue Marketplace, a retail and housing complex.

Tucker Development Corp. is using a technique that compresses the soil to support the foundation. But homeowners said that for several hours a day, the ground trembles and shakes when the heavy weight crashes to the ground.

“The china in my cabinet sounds like a crystal opera,” said Della Moses Walker.


A spokeswoman for the developer, Christa Segalini, said the compacting process was in its final stage and the vibrations and decibel levels were within construction guidelines. Mohammadish said his department would review their report.

The larger question for homeowners and Chaneyfield is one of holding developers accountable in the future.

“We have to send a message, certainly going forward, that you’re not just going to slap anything together,” Chaneyfield said.

A spokesman for Baraka’s administration said he would find out what happened at University Estates.

“He will continue to investigate the circumstances to ensure that all parties involved, including the developers, are able to come to a resolution that will ensure the safety and well-being of the residents involved,” said Sakina Cole, Baraka’s director of communications.

Until then, home is anything but sweet for Gourdine and Williams.

He grumbles about leaving his furnished “man cave” in the basement. It has surround sound stereo, television, and a refrigerator stocked with beer.

She worries about their pockets and the money flying out of them.

“Now you have to face the financial facts that you still have to pay for this home, you still have to pay your taxes, you still have to pay your insurance, and now you have to pay for an apartment,” Williams said.

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