They just don't build 'em like they used to. They used to build 'em so that they didn't fall down.
At a freshly built condominium on West 53rd Street, residents say the undersides of the concrete balconies have started collapsing onto the floors below. At the Empire Condominium Tower, filling the west side of Third Avenue from East 77th to 78th Streets, buckling floors, leaks, and other problems in its $3 million apartments led to the state attorney general's office (AG) requiring the developer to make $2.5 million in repairs.
At a recent condo conversion at 30 Crosby Street in Soho, the fireplaces and flues were so poorly renovated, a lawsuit alleges, that smoke and carbon monoxide poured into apartments. And at 515 Park Avenue on 60th Street — the elegant boulevard's first new apartment house in 60 years, with condo prices starting in the $10 million-plus range — poor construction led to cracks in the foundation, mold infestation, and the forced evacuation "of eight of the building's thirty-eight condominium units … as well as the quarantining of various common areas as potential health hazards," according to an ongoing, much-publicized 2002 lawsuit against developer Zeckendorf Realty and others.
These are issues beyond the typical punch-list items that a new owner, on final walk-through, alerts the seller to before closing — issues far beyond whether the icemaker doesn't work in the refrigerator or a scratch on the floor needs to be sanded and refinished. Attorney Jeffrey Reich, co-head of the real estate department at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, recalls a case where potential buyers did the walk-through, did the punch-list, and closed the next day. And then, a couple of days later, they took their shoes off and discovered the flooring was warped. "Ultimately, we discovered that the wood floor was put down on top of concrete where the developer didn't leave enough time for the [concrete's] moisture to leave."
It's not just in New York City, either: reports are rife from here to the heartland of a crisis in construction. "There have been massive amounts of shoddy construction over the last 10 years," says Janet Ahmad, president of the Texas-based Home Owners for Better Building, attributing it to a confluence of unskilled labor, corner-cutting on materials, and lax government enforcement of building codes.
"There's no question there's been a decline in the quality of construction over time," says the lawyer, engineer, and author Oliver A. Rosengart, who, until his recent retirement from the attorney general's office to go into private law practice, had spent a quarter century as a state assistant attorney general. "Buildings constructed before the mid-1950s or maybe the 1960s are much better constructed than today, partly because the labor doing the work [today] is less skilled."
As for corner-cutting — now referred to euphemistically as "value engineering" — Edward Braverman, a partner in Braverman & Associates, marvels that, in a recent Upper West Side condo conversion, "the exterior walls [weren't] appropriately fire-rated. The architect told me, ‘Impossible. I spec'd it as a brick façade.' But then [the developer] ‘value engineered' it with aluminum panels instead."
Rosengart also points to how quickly new buildings go up — partly through real advances in technology and materials, but also because, he says, "sponsors are anxious to get their money and to stop paying interest on construction loans," which in earlier times had been as low as three percent. And rushed construction "results in a lot of problems. Wood needs to be aged properly before being installed, for example; otherwise there are problems with it expanding, buckling — things like that."
It Can Happen Here
How can this happen in one of the most regulated and consumer-friendly cities in America? Partly because the attorney general's office has dropped the ball, lacking both the will and the resources to rigorously enforce construction law. In addition, the Department of Buildings (DOB) hasn't enough inspectors and allows architects and engineers hired by the builders themselves to certify that building plans meet zoning and code requirements. Just as troublesome, unfinished new construction can get a temporary Certificate of Occupancy — "temporary" except that, per state code, it can "be renewed an indefinite number of times."
In 2002, New York City Assemblyman Scott Stringer released the report T otal Collapse: How NYC Department of Buildings' Failed Policies Contribute to Crumbling Buildings , detailing the DOB's lack of enforcement, effective internal and interagency communication, and even a database to track development.
Four years later, as Manhattan borough president, Stringer testified at a city hearing that "contractors who have flagrantly broken the law are allowed to continue to self-certify and are reissued permits with no questions asked. Contractors and building owners applying for permits are not tracked by address or name. Corporations often apply for permits under pseudonyms and through limited-liability companies, making it difficult for DOB, the public, and elected officials to track owners who repeatedly abuse the system.
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