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Stopping a Stop-Work

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When is a stop-work order not a stop-work order? When it’s resolved, right? For most people, that would be the answer. But not for the Department of Buildings (DOB). Apparently, in the bizarre world of that bureaucracy, a phantom stop-work order can continue to exist…even after it has been resolved. And woe to the person who tries to resolve it.

The story starts six years ago, when my co-op was having façade repairs performed on the building. The contractor neglected to get a weekend work permit, someone reported it, and the DOB “Emergency Response Team” (impressive name, isn’t it?) showed up and issued a stop-work order. Almost immediately, a red banner went up on our building’s DOB page, saying: “STOP WORK ORDER EXISTS ON THIS PROPERTY.”

Sounds pretty damning, right? We thought so. With this mark of Cain on our property, no other construction work could apparently be done, residents couldn’t refinance their mortgages, possible buyers would see this as a stain on our collective character, and the building’s own underlying mortgage might very well be in jeopardy.


We immediately had the contractor clear it up. He pled guilty, paid his fine, and told us it was all cool again. We sighed a sigh of relief – only to become agitated again when we turned to the DOB website.

That damned red banner was still there: “STOP WORK ORDER EXISTS ON THIS PROPERTY.”

We talked to the contractor. He said it was resolved and showed us the paperwork to prove it. We called the DOB, and its rep said someone would have to come down and personally deal with it. As board president, I went to the DOB offices – a crazy place that looked like an Off-Track Betting office, with shirt-sleeved men in an office separated from the rest of the world by glass windows through which you spoke (or tried to speak) to the agents. Either the glass was too thick or the men behind the partition were hard of hearing and/or angry, but there seemed to be a lot of yelling going on. When I finally got to talk to one man, he wouldn’t even look at the paperwork, simply shouting at me, “If you want to get this resolved, it’ll cost you $5,000!”

“But it is resolved,” I said, in vain, for he had already started chatting with someone else, ignoring me.

Others on the board tried to resolve the issue through phone calls, only to get similar results. But then we made a curious discovery: the red banner was still there, but if you clicked to other DOB pages regarding our situation, they all uniformly said, “resolved.” Every one of them. Except for the one on the first DOB page that you visit if you are checking out our building.

It was our phantom violation, and no one we talked with, from managing agents to engineers, knew why it remained there. But it didn’t seem to affect further capital work – or anything else, for that matter. The situation was normal – except for that freaking red banner.

We let it be – until this past January when someone on the board made a joking reference to it. That got me thinking, “Maybe, with a new year and a new approach…” Ah! The happy dreams of hollow men…

I called an engineer to get his opinion. He assured me the records all indicated that the issue was long moot – and he didn’t know why the banner had not been taken down. He suggested I call 311.

At 311 – the city’s help line – they couldn’t have been more unhelpful. After I explained the problem, I was told I had to speak to someone at DOB, to which they quickly connected me. The phone rang about 20 times – I guess everyone was too busy helping others to answer – and then I hung up and called 311 again. This time, the rep said I’d have to go down in person to DOB because “that kind of thing can’t be resolved on the telephone.”

Finally, giving in to exasperation, I said: “Let me see if I have this right. I have to go down to the DOB office, at great personal inconvenience, to resolve an issue that, according to every page on the matter on your website except one, has been resolved. Does that make sense? Why can’t someone just read the DOB website, see that it’s been resolved, and remove the red banner?”

“That kind of thing can’t be resolved on the telephone.”

The sound she may have heard was me banging my head on the wall.

“Is there anything else I can help you with, sir?” she asked.

I don’t think she was being ironic.

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