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The Mother of All Repair Jobs

The structural engineer who drew up the original plans called it “the biggest and most complicated private vault job in the history of New York City.” What it came down to was this: rebuilding the two-story vault that covered all the underground mechanicals of an early-20th-century, cast-iron building in Tribeca, then waterproofing it and covering it with nearly 300 linear feet of sidewalk. The price tag was a formidable $1.6 million. But money was the least of the obstacles. What this condo’s board did was nothing short of miraculous, and it’s proof that even the most daunting repair job is doable – provided you hire the right people and provided they work together toward a common goal.

The Vault Opens

The 30-unit condominium building at 73 Worth Street, a former industrial loft, was in trouble long before the sidewalk vault job was undertaken. For starters, a developer who took over the property in 2000 made a strange decision. Although the building has a vast basement and sub-basement, the developer opted to locate its new mechanicals – the boilers, water heaters, and fire alarm and sprinkler systems – directly under the sidewalk. That move meant that the vault’s infrastructure and existing pipes and conduits presented obvious obstacles. The decision was doubly dubious because it was known, even when the building was undergoing a gut renovation, that the vault was leaking and would eventually need to be rebuilt.

To make matters worse, the sponsor declared bankruptcy after several apartments had been sold but before the building was ready for occupancy. To the relief of those buyers, the building’s mortgage lender, CBRE, agreed to take over as sponsor and honor their contracts. But a cloud had descended on the building before the first resident moved in.

The nine-member board got to work on day one. “At the first board meeting, we were aware the vault needed to be done,” says Joel Butnick, a real estate investor who was a member of the building’s first board and is now its president. “There was mention of it in Ellis’s offering plan. By 2007, we were able to see the thing beginning to degrade, and we put in temporary shoring so we could determine what course to take.” The board mulled its options. Should it negotiate a settlement with the sponsor? Sue the sponsor? Assess unit-owners for the looming vault job?

“We threatened to sue [the sponsor], and that threat was beneficial,” says Butnick. “It led to a $650,000 settlement.” The board also set the assessment process in motion.

With that money in hand, the board hired Rand Engineering & Architecture to draw up specs for the two-phase job – phase one would be a 90-foot section on the Church Street side of the building; phase two would be a 180-foot section on the Worth Street side. To pay for the job, each of the 40 unit-owners would be required to contribute between $40,000 and $70,000, based on apartment size.

“The challenge was to figure out how it was going to be paid for,” says the board’s attorney, Andrea Roschelle, a partner at Starr Associates. “During the worst of the financial downturn, we found Oritani Bank, and an independent mortgage broker and lawyer named Candee Chusid. She killed herself to get this loan together.”

It was a self-liquidating $2.6 million loan, secured by the cash flow of the owners’ monthly common charges. About one-fifth of the unit-owners opted to pay their assessment in a lump sum, while the rest took advantage of the loan, accepting the stipulation that they had to pay off their share before they could sell their apartment or refinance their mortgage.

Bids went out to a dozen contractors, and the board hired Technical Construction Services. Work soon got under way.

The fun was just beginning.

Trouble in Town

Phase one of the project was fairly straightforward, at least on paper. There were no mechanicals under this section of sidewalk, so it was a simple matter of replacing the vault’s corroded cast-iron beams and pillars with steel I-beams, setting a metal “cue deck” on top of them, pouring and waterproofing a concrete slab, and finally pouring the sidewalk on top of it.

But there was one small problem.

“A big rift developed between the engineer and the contractor,” says Butnick. “After we completed half of the job, the engineer wasn’t talking to the contractor. The end product was satisfactory, but the condo board had to make a choice. Since the job was the engineer’s baby, we decided to seek a different contractor for phase two. The new contractor, Central Construction Management [of Long Island City], wound up being one of the best in the city. This snafu actually led us to a better path. We were getting into the very difficult part of the job, working around the mechanical equipment. It required an organized schedule and the right subcontractors. It required skilled, intelligent, experienced people.”

And people who can roll with a punch.

James LaTerza took over as structural engineer when the original engineer left Rand, and he knew to expect the unexpected. “In projects like this,” he says, “you always encounter conditions you hadn’t foreseen. For instance, there were Verizon fiber-optic conduits buried in the outer foundation wall of the sidewalk vault under Worth Street. That’s tough because the conduits came in and out of the foundation, and the condo’s responsible for any damage to them.”

So LaTerza had to get in touch with Empire City Subway, a Verizon subsidiary, to obtain drawings of the conduits and specs for protecting them. That set the work schedule back a couple of weeks. Then Hurricane Sandy blew through, delaying work again but mercifully sparing the condo from flooding.

The next surprise was a massive piece of iron embedded in cement that had not been detected by the engineer’s original borings of the site. The metal had to be cut up, then removed by a crane, which required permits from the city and the temporary closing of busy Worth Street. Other cranes lowered 20-foot I-beams through tight openings between boilers and water heaters and snaking bundles of conduit.

The condo’s property manager, Paul Brensilber, president of Jordan Cooper & Associates, shepherded the meetings with various businesses and city agencies – from Verizon to the Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Con Edison, and the Department of Environmental Protection. He also served as project manager, the daily liaison among the engineer, the contractor, the residents, the commercial tenants, and the board.

“It was very complicated,” Brensilber says. “We had to work in the same space with the mechanicals. The logistics were mind-boggling.”

“Without Paul Brensilber on the job seven days a week, this could not have happened,” says board president Butnick. “The engineer and the contractor needed to consult with someone on a daily basis. The key to success was being able to bring people together to work in unison. He’s the single reason the whole thing came together.”

Another reason is that the friction between the original engineer and the original contractor gave way to a smooth working relationship between their successors. “We follow the direction of the engineer and the architect,” says Michael DiFonzo, president of Central Construction, the contractor for phase two. “We over-communicate. It makes for a better project. If there’s a change order, we like to submit shop drawings, using CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software, so there won’t be any misunderstandings.”

After overcoming all these obstacles, the board decided not to cut corners as the job neared completion. DiFonzo suggested using a liquid, roll-on substance, manufactured by Carlisle, to waterproof the structural concrete slabs. But rather than the conventional “flood test” to check for leaks, the board opted for the more sophisticated and expensive “vector mapping,” which uses electrical currents to pinpoint even the tiniest of leaks. Five small leakages were discovered and repaired before the sidewalk slab was poured on top of the membrane.

For using the vector mapping, the condo received a 20-year warranty from Carlisle. “That was not in the original plans,” says Butnick, “but, on the recommendation of the engineer, we decided to do the upgrade. It wasn’t excessively expensive and it made every bit of sense. Now nobody will have to worry about that sidewalk for 50, maybe 100 years.”

All Sealed Up

As the holidays approached, workers on this Herculean project were tending to minor punch-list items. Those who spearheaded it, meanwhile, reflected on the lessons learned.

Says board president Butnick: “Definitely have your engineer provide different options, from the merely adequate to the 50-year job. Decisions should not always be made strictly on the basis of cost but rather on the long-term benefits to the building. As a board member you have a fiduciary responsibility to do what’s best for the property in the long term. Another thing – the board must set the strictest limits on the engineering costs. Those things can fly away terribly. They have to be negotiated very, very carefully, with an absolute ceiling put on these costs, if possible.”

“With sidewalk vaults,” adds LaTerza, the structural engineer, “regular maintenance is critical. If the waterproof membrane is compromised, water gets inside the vault and the steel framing can rust, the concrete will spall and crack. It’s just a matter of time before the vault fails. Proactive, preventive maintenance is critical to the life of vaults, and all structures. If there’s a problem, you should respond quickly. The longer you wait, the bigger the scope of the repair project.”

In the end, maybe the most amazing thing about this job was that someone involved in it had a good time. “I do a lot of sidewalk vaults, and most of them are kind of boring,” says DiFonzo, the contractor. “But I loved this one. It was an interesting job.”

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