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Safety’s Legacy

In 1980, the death of a Barnard College student from a falling piece of masonry on Broadway prompted the city to enact Local Law 10, which forces real estate owners to periodically repair the facades of their buildings as a way of preventing similar accidents in the future. Like the window guard law for occupancies with small children and the fire exit laws which were enacted following the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Local Law 10 and its successor, Local Law 11 of 1998, were prompted by fatal accidents and are part of an expansion of governmental health and safety rules which by all accounts are working.

But in enacting these types of laws, there are always trade-offs and compromises. Just as fire sprinkler laws don’t force landlords to retrofit old structures because of the expense involved, so Local Law 11 – like its predecessor, Local Law 10 – is limited in scope, only applying to buildings that are over six stories. (The basement is counted as a story if at least half of the wall is above ground; if not, the basement is considered a “cellar” and is not counted.)

Why the cutoff at six stories? Engineer Alan Epstein, who sat on the governmental commission that drafted Local Law 11, says that the commission “was told that there were simply too many older buildings just below the cutoff height, and that it would be impossible to administrate so many. They also were told that applying the law to these buildings would potentially drive many smaller property owners out of business. I myself recommended that the law be modified to include the smaller buildings, because many are in need of inspection and repair.”

The actual incident which forced the creation of Local Law 11, he notes, happened in 1997, on Madison Avenue, when a rear wall that had not been inspected – and was not required to be inspected under Local Law 10 – gave way. As a result of that collapse, the city expanded Local Law 10, which had only required binocular reviews of the fronts of buildings, and mandated that all sides of buildings that are at least a foot away from neighboring exposures be inspected and that a minimum of one scaffold drop be done on each outer wall to closely inspect its structural integrity.

“It’s been most effective,” Epstein says. “What we found at our firm was that when we began doing these Local Law 11 reports, we saw many more conditions in need of work than we had found under Local Law 10, and these became known and could be corrected in a timely fashion.” His firm now inspects from 20 to 30 building each day, under contract with co-op and condo boards that must meet Local Law 11 requirements.

What he found may seem surprising. “Sometimes a prewar building will need less Local Law 11 work than one that is only five to ten years old. Many of the older buildings stand up well because the choice of materials was better; many that go up today are rushed. Sometimes, we find that a prewar building will need less [facade] work than one that is five to ten years old. Now, many go up in a hurry to meet rental or sale deadlines, and there isn’t as much quality control.”

Taller Order

Today’s co-op or condo board, overseeing a property of six stories or more, must be up to snuff on Local Law 11. Managing agents – whose job includes retaining architects and engineers and working with them to plan out the course of repairs while controlling costs, see preparedness as especially important as 2004 draws to a close with the next Department of Buildings cycle – set for February of 2005 – on the horizon.

“The sixth [Local Law 11] cycle starts this coming February,” observes Beth Markowitz, president of Merlot Management. “So, I imagine, come spring, there are going to be a lot of happy people and unhappy people. The contractors and architects and engineers are obviously going to be happy, the boards, not happy.”

She says that she has already scheduled a number of repairs for her properties. “That way, come February, we file and we are done. And we’re paying today’s prices instead of the next year’s inflated prices.” She adds that every managing agent “should have architects and engineers that they have a special relationship with, so you can get what you need. If you have to do major structural work,” she cautions, “there aren’t that many contractors who do it.”

This concern stems from the fact that Local Law 11 imposes another level of requirements on top of those mandated by Local Law 10. Two major changes mark the transition between the old law and the new one. In addition to the requirement that inspections must now include all facade walls (except those within 12 inches of an adjacent building), two categories that were permissible under the old law, “precautionary” and “ongoing maintenance” have been eliminated. There are now just three permissible categories, and a building must fall under one of them: “safe,” “unsafe,” and “safe, with an ongoing repair and maintenance program.” An ongoing maintenance program is one that is regularly monitored by an architect or engineer, with monthly reports filed by the building’s owners.

In addition, under Local Law 11, the owners – as represented by the board of directors or managing agent in co-ops or condos – must sign off on an inspection report filed by the engineer or architect, so that they cannot later claim ignorance of the condition. Each two-year inspection cycle begins a five-year period during which a building is responsible for correcting violations and making repairs

In practice, architects and engineers say, the Department of Buildings seemed to care little about Local Law 10 reports unless an unsafe condition was noted – “precautionary” and “ongoing maintenance” filings reportedly gathered dust. No longer. A building cannot continue a “safe, with ongoing repair and maintenance” classification for two consecutive filing periods. This means that repairs, once identified as necessary in one cycle, must be completed before the conclusion of the next cycle, or the building receives a violation notice and accompanying fine. Local Law 11 puts an end to interminable projects.

“Any condition identified as needing to be repaired in the fifth cycle [February 2000 through February 2002] should have been undertaken and completed within six months,” notes Steve Varone, a principal in Rand Engineering & Architecture. “If they aren’t completed, and the city does an [inspection], the Department of Buildings will downgrade the status of the building to ‘unsafe,’ even if those repair items are not in and of themselves immediately hazardous. Those repairs have got to be done before [the board or managing agent] can file another report.”

Because cycle six starts in February 2005 and runs until February 2007, Varone explains, “technically, the board has until February of 2007 to complete any repair items on the prior report, but the fifth cycle report had to have specific timetables for completion. If your engineer, back in 2001, said that you had repair work but you ignored the report, you won’t get downgraded as unsafe until the next cycle.

“But, if something were to fall off the building, and it comes out that you didn’t make the repair specified, the city would come down harder on you as an owner because you didn’t act on the recommendation of the prior report. And,” he notes, “the city can audit any report, and if anyone files a complaint, they can send a Department of Buildings inspector out, and he will review the prior report. If he sees that the report [indicating that repairs were needed] was filed, say, three years ago and the board did nothing, the building will be downgraded to ‘unsafe,’ and that means an immediate violation.”

Local Law 11 has changed the way the buildings department has viewed reports, agrees Doug Cutsogeorge, an architect with Cutsogeorge, Tooman & Allen. “They are much more proactive in reading and commenting and double-checking on conditions that there are questions about.”

Once a building receives a violation, it is liable to pay a fine – generally about $200 a month – and has from 10 to 30 days to correct the condition. If a building then makes plans to do a repair, it can get an extension, but the Department of Buildings will require plans and activity such as the erection of a sidewalk shed, a timetable for repairs, and proof that the board has engaged an engineer and filed a plan to do the work. Once repairs are ongoing, additional extensions are typically granted as well.

Worse than the fines, which add up quickly as months go by, are the restrictions placed on buildings that have outstanding violations. These include a prohibition on amending your building’s certificate of occupancy, obtaining a J-51 tax abatement, or authorizing certain transfers of title.

“So you have until February of 2007 to correct things,” Varone says. “But the number of buildings that are requiring repairs are more than ever before. They’re suddenly saying every item needs to be repaired; and now you have all these buildings playing catch up. So, if you wait until the fall of 2006, unquestionably you’re going to be paying more and probably you won’t get a top-flight contractor because they’re all going to be backed up. If you have to get design documents, file for permits, put work out for bid, you’re already now at the point where you should be reviewing your fifth cycle report, seeing what’s on the list, and beginning the process.”

Scaffold inspection guidelines are tougher now, as well: each worker must have a certificate to ride the scaffold, so he has to have a certain amount of education and training to even get on the rig. The scaffold operator must have a rigger’s license, and certain types of scaffolds require special permits.

Raising the Bar

Architect Howard Zimmerman, who specializes in facade repairs and whose primary clients are co-ops and condos, agrees that “there’s a lot more work and a lot more of an onus placed on buildings by Local Law 11.” He notes that, “if there are unsafe conditions, there is a professional obligation to report that to the Department of Buildings within 24 hours, and then, within another 24 hours, the department will send an inspector out, who will write a violation for failure to maintain the facade. The clock will then start ticking that you have to cure, and you have 30 days, then you can ask for extensions.

“What normally happens,” he continues, “is that we tell our buildings, ‘You have some serious conditions. Let’s get a contractor here to remove the hazard or put a sidewalk bridge up, and let’s get rid of the hazard first.’ By taking the initiative you don’t have the violation, you don’t have the clock ticking, and you can do it on your own time.

“The Department of Buildings is getting stricter. They’re raising the bar on window air conditioning units. Each has to be secured with brackets, and the filing engineer or owner has to certify that these brackets are installed properly and secured. That goes for satellite dishes and planters, too. I predict that this will be the major new issue for this cycle, and the Department of Buildings has a whole Local Law 11 enforcement division to oversee it.”

Zimmerman adds that, when filing a report of work done under Local Law 11, a building must “make a statement about the water tightness of the building – that the facade doesn’t leak – and must make reference to previous filings and note what has been completed from the last one.”

Getting an Early Start

One co-op that has heeded the advice to “be proactive now, early in the next cycle,” is 333 East 14th Street, which has put major money into a water tower replacement and facade work on two sides, well in advance of 2006, when managing agents are saying a major crunch will occur in hiring sufficient contractors, engineers, and architects.

Jean Berrito, in her second term as board president of the 18-story, 206-unit co-op, “was instrumental in the Local Law 11 process,” says managing agent Paul Brensilber, a principal in Jordan Cooper & Associates. “They did all of the recommended work, from cycle five, and then did an audit to identify any other issues what would prevent them from filing a ‘safe’ report in cycle six.”

Along with Brensilber and the building’s architect, Doug Cutsogeorge, Berrito and her board had a cement water tower that was showing signs of deterioration replaced with “a beautiful cedar tower,” and they’re doing the eastern wall of the building ahead of schedule. “We expect to file our Local Law 11 report before the next cycle,” Berrito says. “We’re doing it now because it makes sense. We just had pointing done on the rear side of the building, and air conditioner sleeves replaced. Like all New York City buildings,” she adds, “we’re vulnerable. We had our engineers make recommendations in 2003, and now, in 2004, we’re acting on them.”

Manager Jeffrey Weber, a principal at Weber-O’Connor, says that “we’re starting to get bids before the contractors get very busy. As you’re walking around the city, you’re starting to see sidewalk bridges being built, so I think a lot of people will start their bidding in the spring of ’05 and that contractors’ prices will be going up as the crunch time approaches. Prices can go through the roof.”

Boards with inadequate reserves for needed repairs are well advised to find ways to increase them – before a notice of violation makes uncomfortable choices necessary.

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