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Capital Projects Are Complicated in the Age of Coronavirus

Marianne Schaefer in Bricks & Bucks on April 8, 2020

Greenwich Village, Manhattan

Local Law 87, cooling tower, chillers, coronavirus pandemic, DOB, Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The cooling tower on its way up (left) and safely in place (right) (images courtesy En-Power Group).

April 8, 2020

The 155-unit landmarked co-op in the West Village had hired En-Power Group engineering firm to conduct its periodic energy and water audits mandated by Local Law 87. Auditors discovered that the rooftop cooling tower and the chillers were not performing well. Last summer, the chillers gave out, and the co-op board realized it was also time to replace the cooling tower. It would have been a challenging project under the best of circumstances. Then the coronavirus pandemic got added to the equation.

“Our contract got finalized right before Christmas,” says Amalia Cuadra, senior director of engineering at En-Power Group. “When Covid-19 hit, a lot of changes were going on within the Department of Buildings (DOB), which is not good when you need approval and permits from the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). Everything slowed down, even though back then construction was still allowed.” 

Despite difficulties, the DOB and LPC  permits were secured, but even more permits were needed. “One was an after-hours variance permit,” says Cuadra. “Usually, one can go through this process online, but everything had shut down at the DOB. We had to figure out a different way, and we found that one could walk into the DOB to get approval.”

The crane contractor, who was hired to hoist the new cooling tower onto the roof, also had to get approval from the Department of Transportation to block off the street. In addition, the crane had to be stationed in front of a firehouse, which required additional permits. “At that point, when we finally got all these approvals despite the difficult situation, it got worse,” says Cuadra, referring to the novel coronavirus that had begun sweeping the city. “All construction had to halt in the city unless it was an emergency or essential.”

The co-op board, its management and the engineering firm deemed this work essential. If the stay-at-home orders are extended, which seems likely, the health and safety of people confined to their homes could become compromised. “Sometimes those heat waves come early,” says Cuadra. “Putting ACs in the windows was not an option, because it would take a lot of manpower and close contact with the residents to do so, and many windows are not lined up for that.” Happily, the essential-construction permit was approved within 24 hours.

The upper two floors needed to be evacuated while the crane was operating. The co-op had two things working in its favor: the crane would operate only during the daytime; and half the building was already empty because many residents had fled the city. Of the 12 apartments on the upper two floors, only seven were still occupied. 

“We had called all the residents in the penthouses and the 15th floor and informed them that on Saturday they would have to leave the apartment for a certain amount of time, but not necessarily the entire day,” says resident manager Erik Pavon. “Even though it wasn’t overnight, some people did not have any other place to go.” The board was able to secure rooms in a closed hotel in the neighborhood. Residents with no place to go could spend time there while the crane was operating. Pavon says they were cooperative – once they were assured that the rooms were clean and safe. 

Last weekend, most of the installation of the cooling tower was completed. Cuadra estimates it will take about four more weeks to replace the chillers and finalize all the different components. Work will progress slowly because contractors have to be very careful. Even though the essential work was approved, they have to adhere to the Executive Order 202.6. “This order means that the workers have to be protected,” says Cuadra. “When you do construction work, there is a social distancing requirement, meaning two workers cannot be within six feet of each other” – or co-op residents – “and they have to wear proper protection equipment.”

It’s turning out that nothing is simple in the age of coronavirus.

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