Foot dragging on building repairs is common, but when it reaches a certain point it becomes unacceptable. We experienced this with an Upper West Side condominium we were working with, and if they hadn’t acted, we were going to have to report an unsafe condition to the Department of Buildings. As professional architects and engineers, our professional liability is at stake.
The problem occurred at a 19-story condominium built in the 1990s. The primary electric service room had extensive water infiltration, and as a result the electrical equipment and its cabinets had severely corroded. There was water on the floor, and workmen were reluctant to work there because of this. The primary electric service room is where the point of entry is for Con Edison bringing in the power for the whole building. So this is really mission control for electrical distribution.
We had a careful look at it, and we did some probing with a contractor. It was our conclusion that the problems went beyond simple corrosion to the electrical service, and the underlying cause was structural. The electrical service room was located in a space below a pedestrian plaza, and we found that the primary waterproofing of the plaza was compromised. There was also a below-grade parking garage, and the ongoing water infiltration from the plaza was compromising the structural integrity of this garage.
Once these issues were uncovered, the condo board had to decide how to proceed. Board members were in a state of shock and initially were in denial and kicked the problem down the road. But we kept insisting that the primary electrical systems could fail, which could set off a cascade of effects related to fire safety and the inability to use the building’s elevators. The building could find itself with a much larger problem if it didn’t act.
Governance was particularly complicated in this condominium. There was the entity of the parking garage, which had a long lease for the subbasement space. There is an institutional stakeholder that owns many of the residential and commercial condominium spaces. There are individual residential unit-owners, and a religious institution that shares some of the building’s infrastructure. So there were three primary stakeholders, with the church being a secondary stakeholder. And these parties had to come together and face the fact that there were significant maintenance issues that they needed to plan how to address.
Initially, the parking garage vendor didn’t want to acknowledge these problems, because to do so meant it would have to close down its business. If someone’s individual interest is compromised by common building maintenance agendas, that party will often question opinions about the repairs that are required, which was the case here. The garage owner did in fact engage an independent structural engineer, who reinforced the prevailing opinion that something needed to be done.
With that, we moved into a phase of negotiations, which inevitably involves attorneys. So even though the common interest for all these entities was proper care of the building, they found themselves in something of an adversarial relationship. They were each trying to compete for what was best for them. In the meantime, the calendar is clicking forward. The building began facade work because of some unsafe conditions under FISP, and this dictated that sidewalk bridging be put up on the public plaza. It was now spring of 2020, and of course life got more complicated for all of us because of COVID. Nonetheless, the condominium, the institutional primary condominium owner and management ultimately worked out an agreement with the parking garage owner to allow the water infiltration repairs to move forward.
Call to Action
We began in April 2017, and there was still some foot-dragging going on in the spring of 2022, even though the construction documents had been prepared. But as we know in the condominium and co-op business, the world changed in June 2021, when the Champlain Towers South in Surfside collapsed. Suddenly, the issue of neglected maintenance was front and center on everyone’s mind. My phone lit up that week with everyone who I’d ever talked to about doing maintenance on their building saying, “Are we in any sort of serious problem, or any serious risk situation with regards to our building?” People started to pay more attention. By July 2021, plans were being made at the condo to vacate the garage.
The lesson here is that deferred maintenance is without exception more costly than maintenance that’s done in a timely way. And that’s due to two factors. One, a building that requires maintenance tends to be in a situation of accelerating deterioration. If the walls are opened up or the plaza is leaking, all of that tends to get worse more quickly. So what starts as a little problem fast becomes a very big problem. It is a perfect example of a stitch in time saves nine. The other takeaway is that all parties benefit enormously by quickly agreeing on common goals, because the deferred maintenance not only gets more complicated, but the professional fees get more complicated. Every entity at the table was spending money on attorneys, and that expenditure didn’t actually help to get to the common goal. And the common goal is the proper maintenance and protection of the asset.