By Anne Levin
Just before 1 p.m. each weekday, residents of Fitzrandolph Road, Murray Place, Prospect Avenue, Aiken Avenue, and other streets near the site where Princeton University is building a new complex brace themselves for a loud boom that rattles their walls as well as their nerves.
The boom is from blasting to prepare for construction of the University’s four new buildings for environmental studies and the School of Engineering and Applied Science (ES & SEAS). The first blasts began in March; the second phase is currently underway. The third and final segment is scheduled to take place from early October through March 2023, and in an area even closer to the residents’ homes.
Last week, some 30 homeowners met with staff from the University to express their growing concerns about effects of the blasting — cracks in sheetrock, molding, and walls; a sinkhole under a house; and water coming up through the middle of a basement floor. So far, there are nine reports by residents of damage caused by blasting.
KyuJung Whang, the University’s vice president for facilities, told those assembled that blasting is the standard methodology for this type of project. The technology has been used on other campus construction sites, most recently at the site of the East Campus Garage along Faculty Road.
“In all instances, we are following all national and local codes and standards,” he said. “We do want to be good neighbors. We have evaluated several alternatives to blasting, but haven’t found one that would work. But we will continue to seek and evaluate more options.”
A committee of four homeowners has been meeting with the University to collaboratively figure out how to address the issue. The May 18 community meeting, held at the University’s Carl Fields Center, began with the viewing of a video about the ES & SEAS project, introduced by Kristin Appelget, the University’s vice president of community and regional affairs. Murray Place resident Marty Schneiderman, who is on the four-person homeowners’ committee, spoke next.
“This part of the blasting has been much more powerful and aggressive than anyone expected,” he said, adding that the intensity has been particularly troubling. Since being informed of the damage, the University has placed 12 seismographs in various parts of the neighborhood to measure the effects of the blasting.
Whang said the responsibility for the damage lies with the contractor. “We have established a process for filing a claim with them,” he said, referring to instructions printed out at each table in the room. “We cannot interfere or short-circuit this process. If it is not resolved, we will evaluate. When we say ‘If we break it, we’ll fix it,’ we really mean that.”
Homeowners were urged to file claims immediately, but they can submit multiple claims over time rather than just a single one. The contractor’s receipt and in-person investigation of the claims may influence the intensity of the blasting to reduce damages. Whiting-Turner has begun sending staff members to houses where damages have been reported to help homeowners complete and submit claims.
One resident asked whether the University has data on these kinds of issues from previous construction projects. They do not, but “we are under very strict state guidelines,” said Bill Bausmith, the University’s executive director of capital projects. “They tell us whether we are in compliance.” When the resident said her question had not been answered, Whang said, “We are staying within the guidelines. We have people watching us and reviewing data on a weekly basis.”
Another resident said that there are different regulations for different processes. “You might not be exceeding the damage for concrete, but you might be exceeding it for drywall and plaster,” he said. “These are older homes.” Asked if homeowners can choose their own contractor to do repairs, Whang said they can.
Neighbors asked about the statute of limitations on submitting damage claims, and the impact of blasting on underground utilities. Whang said the University would research these questions and report back.
According to a report by Schneiderman following the meeting, some of the neighbors have decided to engage a company to do house surveys that would be used as a reference in a blasting claim is made. They were given a referral by the University to Saul’s Seismic, the blasting project’s subcontracted seismic company.
Appelget said the University will continue to send residents weekly updates on the project. The committee plans to keep meeting monthly with the University, while the next community meeting will be held in September, before the third phase of blasting begins.