Building inspectors come knocking – and fines are mounting.
The Department of Buildings (DOB) has created a blizzard in August – and one that can affect you if you’re not careful.
Some say that the agency is on a rampage, issuing a plethora of fines for Local Law 11 building-façade violations, making surprise visits, issuing “failure to maintain” and other violations, and charging co-ops and condos fines ranging from $5,000 to $10,000. “We’re hearing it from everybody,” says veteran managing agent Gerard J. Picaso, president of the decades-old company that bears his name. “I get this information for the most part from contractors,” adds Eric Cowley, president of Cowley Engineering. “They’re the ones taking the brunt of it, since DOB inspectors are coming out and going over things critically on things they never used to or didn’t realize they could issue violations for.”
“It appears the enforcement of the site-safety plan management regulations are being strictly enforced,” says Gene Ferrara, president of JMA Consultants, which advises contractors and others.
Why? And why now?
First, we need to understand the basics. The city has recently ended what is called Cycle 6 of Local Law 11/98. These five-year cycles for building façade inspection began in 1980 with Cycle 1. Each cycle has a two-year reporting period in which your engineer or architect must file a report with the DOB on the cause of any façade deterioration, offering a timetable for repair. This report must be accompanied by a signed statement by the building owner, acknowledging that he has received a copy of the report and admits to an “awareness of the required repairs, if any, and the time frame for same.” The building is then classified as “Safe,” “Unsafe,” or “Safe with a Repair and Maintenance Program.”
The Cycle 6 reporting period ran from February 21, 2005, to February 21, 2007. From 2007 to 2010 – the latter portion of Cycle 6 – buildings with required repairs should have been making them. But Cycle 6 was different from previous cycles. First, there was an expedited schedule for repairs. Then, there was a DOB “Technical Report Form,” called TR-6 (see box, pg. 8), that required a second certification by the building owner. The TR-6 form states that any “Safe with a Repair and Maintenance Program” conditions in Cycle 5 were either corrected or got reclassified in the Cycle 6 report as “Unsafe.”
Some of the crackdown may stem from boards not having supplied the DOB with this new, second certification – either because they didn’t see it amid the plethora of other new requirements, or because they saw it but put it off because they didn’t see the new time frame that was part of it. Or, it may simply be, as engineer Crowley says, that, “When we did our inspections for the sixth cycle, we put in a time frame [as required] for when the repair should be done. Boards get these reports, the board changes, the report gets put in a file, this information may be on page 19, and they don’t pay attention to it. Engineers don’t really have [a way to force the work to be done].”
But the DOB does. The agency will retrieve the report and say, “Your engineer said this needed to be done in three years.” When the DOB finds that it hasn’t been done, the building gets a fine. Or several, depending on the work required but left undone.
Filed and Forgotten
One managing agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes board procrastination is part of the problem. In terms of major, mandated projects such as façade repair, boards “traditionally have said, ‘Ah, let’s do that next year.’ They kept putting it off. I’d find myself at the tail end of this and be scrambling to get workers in at the last minute, especially if something hazardous was found. [The time-frame requirement] makes it easier to schedule and easier budget-wise,” the agent says.
Anton C. Cirulli, managing director of the 85-year-old management and residential brokerage firm Lawrence Properties, agrees that having time frames imposed on buildings “forces boards to face the fact that there are costs associated with Local Law 11 and to budget for it.”
But this is just part of the paradigm. The DOB’s Cycle 6 instructions for architects, engineers, and building owners required more careful documentation than ever before, even though the actual inspection procedures remained unchanged. Also, these new instructions clarified existing requirements, and so things that inspectors may have overlooked before because of vagueness are now fair game.
Among new requirements, Cycle 6 reports mandated full photographs of each façade, in addition to the close-up photos of defects previously required; and an itemized comparison of Cycle 6 and Cycle 5 “Safe with a Repair and Maintenance Program” conditions to confirm that Cycle 5 conditions were fixed. For instance, façade “appurtenances,” such as window air-conditioners and window guards, are required to be “securely installed, stable and properly supported” – a monumental task for a large building with many apartments that your staff might have to inspect individually.
Then there’s all the paperwork. “Sometimes, the work has been done but the engineer neglected to file it with DOB,” says Cirulli. “Sometimes, it is a DOB error. In any event, once the violation is put on the building, it is a hassle getting rid of it.”
Complicating that hassle is that many of the violations aren’t from the DOB at all but a sister agency, the city’s Environmental Control Board (ECB) – which, according to Local Law 11 experts, is much less forgiving. Whereas DOB violations won’t necessarily result in fines if the DOB sees you’re following procedures in good faith, ECB violations require court appearances and almost always result in fines.
Everyone understands the safety concerns underlying all this, says Ferrara, noting that they started with the 1979 death of a Barnard College freshman killed by falling debris and extended to the recent fatal construction-crane accidents. “It’s in the name of safety and it’s important,” he admits. “But, like everything else, sometimes things go a little too far. Building a skyscraper, that’s one thing. Restoring a 15-story building is a little different.”
For more Information:
DOB Technical Report Form TR-6 available online at:
Instructions for Submitting Local Law 11/98 Cycle 6 Report: