Terra cotta became “terror cotta” on May 16, 1979, when a huge chunk of lintel broke off from the seventh or eighth floor of 601 West 115th Street, a Columbia-owned apartment house, built in 1912. It crashed down onto Barnard College freshman Grace Gold and killed her.
Barnard would rename part of its McIntosh Student Center in her memory, but Gold’s tragic legacy reverberated even further: the year after her death, New York City passed Local Law 10 of 1980, requiring five-year inspections of the street-facing façades of buildings that are seven stories or higher. A later revision, Local Law 11 of 1998, mandated the inspection of all façades, not just street-facing ones; a scaffold drop with each inspection; a report on the precise cause of any deterioration; and a timetable for repair. Buildings are then classified as “Safe,” “Unsafe,” or “Safe with a Repair and Maintenance Program” (SWARMP). A previous category, “Precautionary,” was eliminated.
And now comes a new wrinkle. The current cycle of five-year inspections, Cycle 6, ends on February 21, 2007. That’s when reports from each building’s state-licensed architect or engineer must be filed with the Department of Buildings (DOB), and all Cycle 5 repairs should be complete. But on August 21, the DOB quietly enacted what it calls “an alternative filing program” that allows certain qualifying buildings to gain extra time for repairing outstanding SWARMP items and be exempted from the trouble and expense of installing a sidewalk shed, or bridge, in the meantime.
Sound good? Basically it is. The kicker, however, is that to take advantage of this, your inspection report has to be turned in earlier and very soon - by November 21.
“The goal of the program is to offer people whose buildings have façades in safe condition an opportunity for extension, where they don’t have to put up the sidewalk shed right away,” says a DOB spokeswoman. “It’s also an incentive – an inducement – to file earlier. We don’t want everybody to file on February 20; that’s an administrative nightmare.”
How does a building qualify? First, it can’t have had a “Precautionary” status for Cycle 4. Second – and in a bureaucratic display of stating the obvious – your Cycle 5 SWARMP repairs can’t have been completed. And finally, a DOB inspection has to determine that your façades don’t pose any danger to the public.
That first requirement, however, disallows so many buildings - some 80 percent have a Cycle 4 “Precautionary,” according to architects’ and engineers’ anecdotal evidence - that critics question the new program’s usefulness. (The DOB, when requested, could not provide a figure; while the filings are public records, the number of “Precautionary” buildings from 1995-1999 was not specifically broken out and compiled.)
“Right off the bat, you’re eliminating a huge number of buildings,” says architect Stephen Varone, president of Rand Engineering & Architecture, who, with engineer Kathleen Needham Inocco, provided input to DOB when it was considering the new program. “I understand the Department of Buildings’ impetus,” says Varone. “They’re trying to be responsive, and it’s hard to write a one-size-fits-all description. Their interpretation is that these are buildings that time after time had repair work that needed to be done, and so [their owners] weren’t responsible building owners.
“The counter view is that a typical building owner does the work each cycle after getting the architect or engineer’s report about what has to be done,” he adds, and that “Precautionary”-level repairs from Cycle 4 were often done by end of Cycle 5. “As it stands now,” he says, my clients are 90 percent excluded.”
Ironically, the DOB itself concurs with critics’ concerns, says the spokesperson.
“The thought here is that owners have not been diligent with the maintenance – Cycle 4 is two cycles ago. If they were repaired in Cycle 5 that would be a different situation,” the DOB spokeswoman acknowledges, while being unable to speculate whether the department could exercise discretion on exempting Cycle 4 Precautionary buildings if the repairs were completed by Cycle 5, which ended in February 2002.
On the chance that your building does qualify, this alternative program can give boards and managers up to a year and possibly more to repair SWARMP conditions.
Here’s how it works: after filing by November 21, buildings can file for an initial 90-day extension, to February 21. If the Cycle 5 SWARMP items are not corrected by then, the building’s architect or engineer must automatically designate the building “Unsafe” for Cycle 6. There won’t be any fines, however, and buildings can then apply for additional extensions up to nine months, followed by another 90-day extension – all of this contingent upon your showing the DOB that you have a viable repair plan in place. The nine-month extension requires a follow-up DOB inspection to confirm your building still doesn’t require a shed.
But simply put, says Varone, “instead of having all your repairs done by February 21, 2007, you have until November 21, 2007, to complete all the work or put up a [sidewalk] shed.”
The DOB forms and official requirements – the links for which are not listed on the department’s home page, despite the DOB’s stated desire to have forms submitted are available at: www.nyc.gov/html/dob/html/guides/ll11_98_cycle_6.shtml