Residents who live near the East 26th Street block that partially collapsed amid heavy rains in Charles Village last week say they have received little information a week later about what occurred and what’s being done to prevent it from occurring again.
“We in the community are anxious to get a meeting together with the city and to get answers and voice concerns,” said Jeff Larry, a resident of the block between North Calvert Street and Guilford Avenue. “It’s a real community gathering place, and it’s just a little stressful to see it all messed up and have it not be clear yet whether the city is going to do the right thing when they put it all back together.”
“I’m still pretty much in the dark,” said Kelly Cross, president of the Old Goucher Community Association, which represents the neighborhood.
City officials also had yet to respond in any detail to questions from The Baltimore Sun about their plan to fix the street and whether they had conducted promised inspections of it after a similar collapse four years ago.
Larry said he and other residents were exchanging a whirl of emails Monday morning to figure out the best way to put pressure on the city to provide more information. He said the collapsed block is a “real active stretch of street in an important part of our neighborhood,” and residents want to be sure it is restored in the right way.
The Nov. 26 collapse followed another in 2014, when a separate stretch of East 26th Street two blocks west fully collapsed into the CSX Transportation railroad tracks below, taking parked cars and other parts of the street with it. That collapse displaced about 20 families for more than a month and prompted a year-long construction project to replace the retaining wall.
The more recent collapse was far less dramatic than the one in 2014, and no residents have been evacuated or displaced. However, it raised questions among local residents like Larry, who doubt the inspections have occurred as promised.
“How do we know that they're really monitoring it?” Larry said.
The city has provided few answers.
In a statement Monday, transportation department spokesman German Vigil said that, since 2014, the department “has had improved communication with CSX” and officials “have continued to meet and discuss maintenance and responsibilities” for portions of the roadway that abut the CSX-owned train tracks.
“Our main priority is to safeguard the community and the rail line by stabilizing this section of wall so that a new structure can be built,” Vigil said.
He said the city has not discussed with CSX who would pay for the repairs. The city and the railroad split the cost of repairs after the 2014 collapse.
CSX, which restarted train traffic through the area within hours of the latest collapse, has said it is working with the city.
However, neither the city transportation department nor Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office has responded in detail to a list of questions and document requests from The Sun, including for records of any inspections of the street that have occurred in recent years.
Vigil said the city determined the section of the street that collapsed last week was safe in the 1990s, when it replaced another portion of the retaining wall on the block. And he said it used ground-penetrating radar to assess the street again after the 2014 collapse. But he did not have any records to immediately share from either assessment, as those documents were being reviewed by the city.
He said the city did not have any reason to believe that recent underground utility work in the area had contributed to the collapse last week.
Pugh said at the site last week that it was “probably going to be a number of days” before the repairs were completed.
A week later, construction at the scene appeared nowhere near completion.
Vigil said Monday the wall had been stabilized and the damaged section removed.
Along the block in question, there is a short retaining wall along the railroad tracks, and then another one several feet back that is larger and meets the street above. It was that second, larger retaining wall that was compromised last week.
By Monday afternoon, crews had cleared away the damaged portion of the retaining wall — about half the length of the block — and draped large pieces of white plastic over the otherwise exposed earth beneath East 26th Street.
An excavator on the street was digging out dirt between the shorter retaining wall near the tracks and the covered earth wall — likely in preparation to construct a new wall to replace the one that collapsed and was removed.
About 1 p.m. Monday, a large piece of drilling machinery was delivered to the site. It was similar to the machinery used in 2014 to install a temporary retaining wall with steel pilings along the stretch of roadway that collapsed that year, stabilizing the street while a more permanent, cement retaining wall was installed.
It was unclear whether the city would be taking a similar approach to shoring up the street this time around.
Cross said he talked to the mayor twice last week, and she assured him that she was taking the matter seriously.
“She just said that we need to work on a comprehensive strategy,” he said. “She didn’t want this to be piecemeal.”
Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration sent a similar message to the community after the 2014 collapse, and Cross said he wishes the city had “better and more consistent communication” and followed through on its promises.
Instead, “it’s always just damage control,” he said. “It’s always just quickly saying things to people in the moment to get them to calm down.”
Larry said he had one conversation with liaisons from the city last week, but they only told him “in very vague ways what was going on” and did not provide many answers to his questions. He hasn’t been briefed since, he said — even as the construction work continued outside his window.
The lack of information from the city has to stop, he said.