Work to repair a retaining wall that collapsed along East 26th Street in Charles Village last month is likely to last until next summer, city officials told local residents at a community meeting Thursday.
They promised to do a better job monitoring and maintaining such infrastructure moving forward — the same promise they made after a similar but more dramatic collapse of another retaining wall two blocks away in 2014.
They promised this time would be different — a pledge met with skepticism by the gathered residents.
Michelle Pourciau, director of the city transportation department, said the city is “early in the process” of rebuilding the recently collapsed wall, which fell between North Calvert Street and Guilford Avenue on Nov. 26, but said the street has been stabilized.
Muhummad Khalid, the transportation department’s chief engineer, said preliminary designs for a new wall — and a new sidewalk, lighting, tree wells and other parts of the street — are due from a contractor next week, and will give the city a more precise time frame for completing the work.
He said the city still does not know exactly what caused the recent collapse, but believes one factor was water pressure from heavy rains pooling in the soil behind the wall, due in part to poor drainage.
He said the city and CSX Transportation, which owns the train tracks toward which the wall collapsed, are conducting a “joint inspection” of similar infrastructure all along the street.
Pourciau said the city is “putting together an asset management system to document all the pieces of our infrastructure,” which she said will allow for more robust monitoring of such retaining walls.
“We’re very challenged with the infrastructure, the age of the infrastructure,” she said.
Many of the 40 or so residents who gathered at Thursday’s meeting seemed unconvinced — either that the city was handling the current collapse in a responsible way, or that the city had been monitoring the safety of the street after the 2014 collapse.
“You say that there were inspections done in 2014. May I have a list of all of the inspections, the location, the time and the date, and what the results were, please? I can give you my email address,” said Robert Steele, a nearby resident of Calvert Street. “You claim that there’s going to be inspections done in the future. May I have a copy of the time, the date, the place and the results of every single one of those inspections from now forward, please?”
Pourciau told Steele that her office is handling such requests through the Maryland Public Information Act.
The city, to date, has declined to provide any documentation in response to such a request by The Baltimore Sun two weeks ago, asking for any and all records of inspections of the roadway and wall since the 2014 collapse.
Pourciau told The Sun before the meeting that the documents responsive to that request are “limited,” and remain under review.
The meeting was held in the gymnasium of Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School, which is located on East 26th Street in between the recently collapsed block and the one that collapsed in 2014. Residents have said young students often walk along the stretch of roadway that collapsed.
The Nov. 26 collapse affected nearly half the block between North Calvert Street and Guilford Avenue, as a retaining wall that for decades has held the street above the CSX railroad tracks below shifted by several feet.
The entire block has been closed to vehicle traffic as crews have moved to shore up the street. Calvert Street also has been closed in the area, though one lane was reopened to traffic Thursday.
In 2014, a similar stretch of East 26th Street between St. Paul and North Charles streets, known as Pastel Row for its colorful rowhouses, fully collapsed into the train tracks, taking with it the sidewalk, light posts, parked vehicles and much of the asphalt roadway. That incident displaced residents who lived on the block for more than a month, and construction to replace the wall took more than a year.
The city and CSX ultimately agreed to split the estimated $12 million cost for that replacement project.
On Thursday, Pourciau said there “will be some joint funding” from the city and CSX for the latest repairs, but that no specific cost estimates had been worked up.
Brian Hammock, a CSX representative at the meeting, said the company is again working with the city to address the failure along its tracks.
Residents expressed concerns about trains continuing to rumble through the area and unaddressed issues with other streets in the area. They stressed the need for community input in the work to replace the wall and sidewalk.
Marshall Sherer, a Calvert Street resident who said he lives about 50 feet from the site, expressed concerns about the construction work.
“It’s been taken into the night — sometimes overnight, rattling my home. I have a 5-year-old, a partner. It’s been disturbing our sleep patterns,” he said.
He wants the city to limit work hours and improve communications with residents when the work will be occurring overnight.
Pourciau said the city has an interest in completing the work as quickly as possible but will work with residents moving forward and think carefully about work hours.
Laura Flamm, a resident of Guilford Avenue, questioned the city about its approach overall.
“The reasons that you gave for the wall collapse — record rain, erosion, an old wall — that’s true for the entire stretch of tracks,” she said. “Clearly this piecemeal approach is not working. I mean, it’s great that no cars fell in this time, but what’s your plan to repair all of the old walls so that we don’t have to keep doing this year after year?”
Pourciau said that replacing such infrastructure is expensive, and the city’s resources limited.
“We try to assess need, and prioritize resources,” Pourciau said. “We’ve got to do a better job with the need here, and that’s what we’re going to be doing.”