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The Problem: Getting Access

Construction and renovation projects in New York City almost always require a licensing agreement between neighbors when the building doing the work needs access to the building next door. These negotiations are normally cordial and businesslike. But you’ve been running into problems lately.

The onset of COVID is when the problems started. Suddenly, people didn’t want outside people in their buildings, and they tried to delay things. In the past year or so we’re seeing another aspect of it — bad players. People want large fees for access agreements — it’s a shakedown, really — or there was a Hatfields-and-McCoys situation back in the day when a prior project was done. So it can be greed or bad blood, and it’s causing major problems.

Where might the resistance come from?

In the past, there may have been a bad contractor whose work was not properly supervised. Or maybe the job went on too long. Whatever the reason, right now we do about 50 to 80 major projects a year, and about 60 wind up on hold before the job even gets started because the neighbor is slow to sign the access agreement. All of that is holding up the work and costing money.

Are there workarounds when getting an agreement is taking a long time?

If we know it’s going to be difficult getting an access agreement with a neighboring building, we tell the contractor to set up the project in phases so he can start working in the center of the building and stay away from the neighbor. That way, the contractor can begin working even if all the problems with the neighboring building haven’t been sorted out. 

Normally these things can get worked out if the neighbor who is being difficult is going to need access to your building down the line. We try to point out that if you’re nice to us, then we’ll be nice to you when you need something. This usually gets the access agreement moving forward. The only time that doesn’t work is when the neighbor’s building is lower and will likely never need access to your building. The neighbor will want exorbitant sums of money or else just say no. And that’s when we have to go to court.

Which is the last place you want to be, right?

It’s a drawn-out process, and it costs a lot of money on both sides. One of my suggestions is that the Department of Buildings should have a separate court set up for this — access court — staffed by people who know what they’re talking about and who have access fees set up in advance. We would be more than happy to pay a reasonable fee if it expedites the process. Because that’s what you really want.

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