Tribeca's Cobblestone Streets: More Treacherous Than Charming?

The Harrison Street crossing at the corner of Hudson Street, like several others in Tribeca, requires traversing uneven cobblestones. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Apr. 05, 2022

What’s to be done about Tribeca’s ankle-turning, fender-rattling, broken-down cobblestone streets?

After years of complaints, with multiple reports of injuries, and even a death, some community leaders have decided they are fed up with the neighborhood’s trademark yet treacherous stone roadbeds. If the city can’t get them right, they say, then pave them over. 

That was the consensus of Community Board 1’s Quality of Life Committee last month following a lengthy discussion of the streets’ dangers and the city’s inaction at fixing the worst of them.

“We feel that the cobblestones are not streets that everyone can use. If there’s no landmarking involved, we prefer to ask that they become asphalt streets,” said the committee’s chair, Pat Moore, summing up the group’s resolution when it was later discussed by the full board. (Though commonly referred to as cobblestones, a pre-Civil War-era paving material, most “cobblestone” streets in the city were paved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with granite Belgium blocks.)

But the suggestion that Tribeca should lose its stone paving—and thus a major feature of its historic character—counters the board’s long-held support for protecting and repairing the stone-laid streets. The idea drew firm resistance from other board members, with one blasting it as “an abomination.”

Moore withdrew the resolution for now, but the debate has just begun. The issue is expected to be argued again at the April 20 Quality of Life Committee meeting.

“We’ve had this decades-long position of wanting cobblestone and wanting cobblestones repaired. All of a sudden it’s a complete reversal,” said Marc Ameruso. “That is a major, major change.” 

“I understand the safety issues. I would favor repairing the cobblestones up to standard, but I’m not prepared to eliminate cobblestone streets from our district,” Jeff Galloway said.

“Crazy,” said Bob Townley.

Laura Starr, a landscape architect and board member, said she has studied the issue and argued that “there are ways to keep the cobblestone aesthetic” and still make them safe for people with disabilities. “You can use stones that are flatter on top and that are set closely together which is the right way to do it anyway,” she said, “so that it’s not a tripping hazard and it’s not dangerous.” She said the board should call on the Department of Transportation to “properly supervise their contractors and should not accept shoddy work.”

“I don’t know how you hold them accountable,” Moore later responded. “It’s been over a decade.” 

In a statement, DOT spokesman Vin Barone said, “The DOT carefully monitors the condition of New York City’s historic cobblestone streets and will make necessary repairs to protect the safety of traveling public. We will continue to address complaints of defects and depressions of the cobblestone streets with asphalt repairs and work closely with the Department of Design and Construction on full-scale reconstruction projects.” Barone did not respond to specific questions about the agency’s assessment of Tribeca’s problem streets or its efforts to make those streets more transversable.

According to Department of Transportation regulations, the rectangular granite stones must be placed no more than one-half inch apart and the cement filler should be flush with the stone. Any irregularities exceeding the one-half inch separation “must be immediately corrected,” the rules say.

Paving over the cobblestones would need Landmarks Preservation Commission approval, LPC spokeswoman Zodet Negron said in an email. “In kind replacement and repair is routinely approved and replacement with asphalt would require review by the full Commission at a public hearing,” she wrote.

Back in early 2011, the city completed a huge water main project in Tribeca that included installing eight blocks of roadway with new Belgium blocks. A year-and-a-half later, CB1 even called for portions of two other Tribeca streets to be paved with the stones. But by 2016, conditions of some of the work had badly deteriorated, with dislodged stones, disintegrating concrete mortar, and sinking roadway, especially on Greenwich Street south of Canal. CB1 called for inspections and repairs by the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) and Department of Transportation (DOT), the two agencies that had been in charge. That resolution, they say, led nowhere, as did a two-hour tour of the problem streets in 2018 with a de Blasio administration official.

(Ian Michaels, a DDC spokesman, did not respond to questions about the apparent poor workmanship when the stones were installed, noting that “we have not worked in that location in more than a decade.” In general, he wrote in an email, repairs are the responsibilitiy of DOT.)

“Even with us discussing this with the mayor’s office nothing has changed,” said Diane Lapson, president of the Independence Plaza Tenants Association who has been a leading voice in efforts to make the streets safer. “Sometimes you don’t get a traffic light until somebody dies,” she added, speaking at the first of two Quality of Life Committee discussions this year on the topic. “We’ve had somebody die and other people fracture their ribs and break their wrist. And those are only the people we know about.”

“It’s kind of unbelievable that this is continuing,” she added.

In October, 2018, John Croce, 70, was crossing Harrison Street near his home at 40 Harrison St. in Independence Plaza when he fell “because of the conditions of the cobblestones,” said Lonni Levy, Croce’s partner of 27 years. He died three months later following multiple surgeries for his injuries. Speaking to the Quality of Life Committee, Levy, who is suing the city on behalf of Croce’s estate, said she is speaking out “to try to avoid this kind of suffering from happening to someone else. Harrison Street and other streets in Tribeca are still extremely dangerous to walk on. Our streets should be safe.”

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Cutting corners to save money caused the problems

One main problem is the stones are not cut and laid like they are supposed to be. There’s soft fill they throw in underneath so the surface quickly shifts, and the stones are laid too far apart to save on money for stones and labor. They are supposed to be cut straight, laid on solid foundation, and very close together. A cobblestone expert pointed this out to me years ago on vestry.CATHY DREW


When in Tribeca, don't do as the Romans do

The streets surrounding our hotel in Rome, in the historic area of the city, near the Pantheon, are cobblestone, pitted, broken in places, sticking up and altogether a menace for anyone over a certain age or using a walker. Your streets should be ADA suitable or pave them over, I say. — JUDY GOODSTEIN

Decide: Nostalgia or pragmatism?

Paving stones look nostalgic, because they have an interesting history. Not just in Tribeca. Also in the South Street Seaport. In the 1600s, paving stones were a great improvement over the muddy streets of New Amsterdam. But by 1870, asphalt became an equivalent improvement over paving stones. Ugly as it is, asphalt is cheaper and easier to maintain — and today much safer for bicycles, baby carriages, shopping carts, wheelchairs, and anyone with mobility problems. Perhaps the time has come to decide between nostalgia and pragmatism? — RO SHEFFE

Because of the unsafe cobblestones, I bike on the sidewalk

Thank you for reporting on this important safety issue. The DOT rarely seems to get to repairing places that need it. We have been trying to replace sidewalk around Finn Square for three years to no avail. It is a wreck, and we have seen people trip over it regularly.  As a bicycle rider, I cannot safely ride on cobblestones. It is horrible, and that is why I ride the sidewalk on Franklin Street even though I know it is illegal. I love the tiny lane on Varick Street just south of Canal carved out just for us bikes, because that is one of the cobblestone streets in the worst condition in the whole neighborhood. I hope that we can save the look of the neighborhood while keeping it safe for everyone. How do we keep the DOT accountable? — PATRICIA AAKRE

Tribeca is not a movie set

The whole cobblestone thing is absurd. If you want a Movie set, move to Los Angeles. That's why God made asphalt. — MADELINE LANCIANI

My vote: Get rid of them

I vote for getting rid of the cobblestones. They are treacherous to pedestrians and a pain to drivers.

We can keep a few stones and display them in a glass case, with a photo of a horse and carriage.




Don't pave them, properly repair them

Thanks for a thorough and informative article about Tribeca’s cobblestoned streets. I live with them and cross them frequently, always with great care and always, up until now at least, safely. I don’t hurry across. I wait for traffic to abate so that I can cross at a slow pace…and by the way, I walk with a cane. I don’t want these streets to be paved over. I want them to be properly repaired. They add greatly to the historic feel of this neighborhood. I believe that most of these cobblestoned streets weren’t properly installed to begin with. The City could fix the problem by hiring competent contractors and by putting something in the budget for maintenance. —TERESE LOEB KREUZER


Tribeca will look historical without them

The cobblestone streets are horrendous. They are bad for dogs as there is often broken glass in between the stones. Also, being in a car going over these streets is like being in a covered wagon. Tribeca will look historical without them. — KAREN BERNARD

Find someone who can install eye-pleasing stones

I have watched these cobblestones being installed on Greenwich and Jay Street for example and the work was shoddy to begin with. Also you forgot to mention the main entrance to Tribeca on Varick and Canal where cobblestones rattle the cars and there is no real bike lane. Maybe if they found someone who could properly install eye pleasing stones the problem could be solved rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Thanks for your reporting. — PETER STASTNY