Sue Treiman in Bricks & Bucks on February 5, 2020
The Knolls Cooperative in the Riverdale section of the Bronx is up against a wall – the retaining kind. The board and management at the 252-unit complex were confused when an ominous violation notice arrived from the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) in October. The letter warned that the co-op faced potential fines – as well as criminal and civil penalties – for failing to file a 2019 inspection report for its retaining walls.
Inspections were mandated by Local Law 37 in 2008 for retaining walls that exceed 10 feet in height and front a public right of way, such as a sidewalk or building entrance. The law was enacted partially in response to a disastrous retaining-wall collapse at the Castle Village co-op in 2005, which sent tons of dirt and debris spilling onto the Henry Hudson Parkway. Miraculously, no one was hurt.
The Knolls had never submitted an inspection report for the simple reason that the board and management believed they weren’t required to do so. Of the approximately 10 retaining walls on the hilly, 3.1-acre property, only one is taller than 10 feet, and it’s not adjacent to a public right of way. “We weren’t sure why we were even on the radar,” says property manager Stewart Hackett, president of Robert E. Hill. “I’ve been the property manager for this building for three years and never before heard anything about retaining walls.”
But a DOB violation doesn’t disappear on its own. The burden of proof falls on the building owner, and documentation doesn’t come cheap. The co-op board hired RAND Engineering & Architecture to address the violation. “The immediate cost would be about $10,000 just to prove there’s no violation,” says Jamey Ehrman, a senior engineer at Rand, who led the Knolls’ response to the DOB.
Ehrman and project manager Michael Arborn walked the property and reviewed the site survey provided by surveyor Joseph Nicoletti, who updated an existing 2012 survey of the property. The two engineers measured walls, studied regulations, and provided photographic evidence to document that none of the retaining walls fall under the Local Law 37 requirements. Their report, coordinated with the management company and Nicoletti, was dispatched to the DOB.
As the group awaits a hoped-for waiver, the Knolls team cautions other buildings to watch for related citations. “We already have one other property in Upper Manhattan facing a similar violation,” says Hackett.
To explain such a dubious violation, Ehrman points to a confluence of events: the aging of the city’s housing stock, and new regulations that seem to come in the wake of building-safety incidents. In this case it was the Castle Village wall collapse. More recently, the DOB has tightened facade-inspection rules and increased fines for violations in the wake of an accident caused by terra cotta falling from a facade and killing a pedestrian near Times Square.
“It’s inevitable that, at 50 to 75 years, some buildings may be at risk for more system failures,” Ehrman says. “And any place that has a retaining wall is going to be increasingly examined.”
To head off problems, Ehrman suggests that boards consult an expert. “Don’t make this technical decision without a qualified engineer,” he says. “If you try to spare the expense of a consultation, it could cost you in the long run.” The engineer may suggest checking for up-to-date engineering reports on retaining walls and conducting a full property survey with a qualified surveyor. If the board chooses to challenge a retaining-wall notice, it will need to add a retaining-wall specialist to the team whose experience and credentials meet the DOB standards.
Ehrman is optimistic that the Knolls will soon be out of the woods. “We believe this should end the issue forever for this cooperative,” he says.
PRINCIPAL PLAYERS: ENGINEER: RAND Engineering & Architecture. PROPERTY MANAGER: Robert E. Hill. SURVEYOR: Joseph Nicoletti.
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