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Are NYC's cobblestones on the way out for good?

The Department of Transportation may replace the historic cobblestones in Vinegar Hill with artificially aged granite stones.

A man walks on the cobblestones on Water St. in Dumbo. Credit: Aaron Adler. A man walks on the cobblestones on Water St. in Dumbo. Credit: Aaron Adler.

While some preservationists are balking at construction plans for the historic cobblestone streets of Vinegar Hill, the city insists the upgrading is imperative for the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, and necessary to bring the city streets into compliance with accessibility standards set by the American Disabilities Act.

The $20 million capital construction project "to reconstruct cobble roadways and subsurface utilities," as the DOT website puts it, comes by way of a collaboration among the DOT, the DUMBO Improvement District, the Department of Design and Reconstruction and, according to DOT spokesman Nicholas Mosquera,community boards and local residents and stakeholders.

"At our last public meeting last month, we saw growing, enthusiastic support for this overdue work," Mosquera asserted, noting that the Department has heldthree workshops in the last year to receive community feedback and display plans.

Mosquera also said that the DOT and its partners in the project are "discussing options to reuse as many cobblestones as possible."

A plan presented at the most recent community workshop last month detailed how the reused stones will be used alongside new stones, with particular attention paid to the color, size and textural consistency.

The catch, as some news reports and neighborhood groups have noted, is that the current stones are not merely "granite cobble" — they are hand-cut Belgian blocks.

And the new stones the city plans to use — aside from the ones Mosquera hopes to reuse — are new laser-cut blocks that will be put through a tumbler to give them an older, weathered look.

However, the cobblestone streets are already covered with a smattering of asphalt patches:Mosquera says that half the cobblestones are covered by asphalt just to make the street navigable.

The issue is not only surface-level: as there have been no street improvements in over a century, underground utilities like sewers and water mains used by the homes, stores and restaurants in the area "are long overdue for reconstruction."

"A huge part of this work is just to bring what's underground into the 21st century," Mosquera explained.

Ultimately, the goal is to make the street safer and easier to navigate, and implement ADA-compliant smooth crosswalks.

Mosquera emphasized "the most important thing... is that this is a complete street reconstruction that builds on similar projects elsewhere in DUMBO," essentially maintaining consistency in street design throughout the neighborhood.

Similar, complete street reconstruction on Washington Street and another section of Water Street started more than three years ago.

Are the cobblestones protected landmarks?

Elisabeth de Bourbon at the Landmarks Protection Council said there are "a number of streets in some of the city's historic districts that are landmarked by virtue of being in the boundaries of those historic districts," likeDUMBO, Tribeca and the Gansevoort Market Historic District.

Cobble roads in the Ninth Avenue-Gansevoort area are also undergoing some construction, according to the DOT's website: on Ninth Avenue from Gansevoort to West 16th Street, the DOT has plans underway for "upgraded water and sewer lines, and a resetting of its historic cobblestones."

Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat

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