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Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Gimme Shelter: The Canopy Conundrum

Thinking about installing a canopy at your building’s front door? Beware: while the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) approves canopy permits in a matter of weeks, it can take more than a year to win approval from the city’s Department of Transportation (DOT) – which is involved because a canopy’s supporting struts are embedded in the sidewalk and might impede foot traffic. And DOT’s personnel, say property managers and board members, offer little or no help and often make unreasonable demands.

“It’s become an issue not just with managing agents but with the canopy companies themselves,” says Meryl Sacks, director of management at Rudd Realty. “If it’s not a direct replacement, they don’t even want to do the job.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” says Chris Henry, co-owner of Green Light Expediting, one of many companies that buildings hire to deal with city bureaucracy. “It can take so long for something that looks so simple. We’ve gotten gut renovations of entire buildings approved and permitted before getting a canopy approved and permitted.”

“At one point,” adds Dan Gulick, board president for 16 years at 111 Third Avenue, a 17-story building completed in 1958, “the DOT said, ‘You have to take down your [current canopy] before we can review your application, because your current one is not in compliance.’ [We said,] ‘What? It’s been [in place] for decades!’ But it’s no use arguing with the DOT.”

A spokeswoman for the DOT says that the agency is trying to deal with such complaints, asserting it had recently streamlined the permit-application process for installing and upgrading canopies by adding the permit to its online NYCStreets permit system. “By doing so,” the spokeswoman explains, “we have eliminated the need for customers to mail or physically hand in documents. DOT is looking to further streamline the process in the next few months by making improvements to the online system and making it easier to use.”

While your professionals will handle the myriad details involving canopies, it’s important for boards to understand the process. The first thing to know is the difference between a canopy and an awning. In municipal government-speak, an awning is a fixed or retractable cover over a doorway, window, or storefront that is attached solely to the building; a canopy, on the other hand, has struts embedded in the sidewalk to help hold the structure up.

The distinction is important since it determines which city agencies require approval. You need DOT and DOB approval for canopies, but for awnings you need a nod only from DOB. Also, note that while the fire department must approve cloth awnings or canopies for fire-retardant quality in hotels, motels, sidewalk cafes, and similar public gathering places, the rules make no mention of residential buildings. It’s a moot point, anyway, since virtually all canopies today use metal or vinyl coverings.

From DOB to DOT

“With DOB, you can file things two different ways,” says Henry, the expediter. One is having your architect or engineer file an application with the DOB office in your borough. A DOB examiner reviews the plans “to make sure the canopy’s properly attached to the building – wind-resistant and stable – and that you test it for asbestos,” Henry says.

The other way is to have your professional use the city’s Professional Certification Program, which allows architects and engineers to certify that the plans being filed comply with all applicable laws. “That saves time by taking the DOB examiner out of the equation,” says Henry. “The problem is, your plans can be audited at any point and if there are any issues – if they say, ‘Oh, you read the code wrong, you can’t it build it there’ – then you have to tear [the canopy] down. That’s why some folks don’t like to professionally certify.”

If you go the examiner route, he says, it takes DOB “four or five weeks to do the initial review and come back with any comments. If they do, then you have to schedule an appointment with the plan examiner and show the revised plans. Jobs can be started only after the plan [has been] approved.”

You’ll also need DOB approval before you can get DOT’s approval, which is known as “revocable consent,” since it can be revoked if, say, a new bus stop is being installed within 15 feet of your canopy. The process starts with obtaining permission to apply. So before anything else happens, your professional must complete a “Permittee [sic] Registration Application” (www.nyc.gov/html/dot/downloads/pdf/regapp.pdf), submit it with a number of standard documents, and then wait for that to be approved.

Once you have your permittee number, your professional fills out DOT’s application for roadway and sidewalk permits (www1.nyc.gov/nycbusiness/description/canopy-permit). Along with the application and architectural plans, you’ll need to show proof of a commercial general liability insurance policy, among other things. The fee for a canopy permit is $50 annually. You can also apply in person at the DOT Permit Office in your borough. Manhattan applicants must submit applications in person at the Highway Inspection Quality Assurance Unit at 55 Water Street.

Here’s another tidbit: while your canopy-installation company needs to be licensed to work in all five boroughs, its insurance bond needs to be specific to your borough.

The Waiting Game

Then comes the waiting. And the frustration. “[You] can’t get anybody [at DOT] on the phone,” says Sacks. “The website’s not user-friendly.” One installation company she often uses has been waiting two years for a permit to be issued.

“Regarding time frame for the permitting process, DOT has been working with individuals who have experienced slight delays due to the new online process to facilitate permit applications,” DOT said in a statement, giving no explanation as to why a computerized process would create delays of many months.

Bill Bouton, vice president of management at Majestic Property, says one reason for the delays is that DOT gives itself an unpublicized end-of-year-vacation from issuing permits. “DOT has an embargo during the holidays,” he says. “[From] before Thanksgiving till after the New Year, you can’t get any DOT permits.”

“We hired a designer and then he worked with an engineer to come up with a design the board thought was acceptable,” says Gulick, the co-op president. “As we finished the design process, we submitted for permits and that [process was like entering] a black hole.” DOT approval took more than eight months, as opposed to a few weeks for DOB approval.

Nor is eight months unusual. “Eight sounds about right,” says Henry. “The last we heard from DOT they were saying four to six months, but they always undershoot.”

In addition to the $50 annual fee, there’s a $135 charge to erect your canopy, which you have to do within 30 days. And while DOT used to send out a reminder about the yearly fee to property managers – which the DOT labels a “courtesy” – that has ended.

“Regarding notifications,” the DOT spokeswoman says, “DOT eliminated reminder notices as permits no longer expire on one specific date and now have individual expiration dates.”

Without that mailed reminder, to which the industry had grown accustomed, “you have to have a real good tick-off system in place and start your [renewal] process way in advance of the expiration date,” says Sacks. “It’s an issue if you go to refinance your mortgage and something comes up expired.”

 

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