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Building Facades Are Not the Place to Cut Corners

Adam Janos in Bricks & Bucks on October 25, 2017

Upper West Side, Manhattan

Facade Tragedy

The Esplanade Luxury Senior Residences on West End Avenue (image via Google Maps)

Oct. 25, 2017

It’s natural – it’s imperative – for co-op and condo boards to explore creative ways to save money. But boards who are thinking about cutting corners on their mandated Facade Inspection Safety Program (FISP) repairs, formerly known as Local Law 11, need remember only one name: Greta Greene.

The two-year-old girl was outside the Upper West Side’s Esplanade Luxury Senior Residences with her 60-year-old grandmother, Susan Frierson, in May 2015 when a piece of terracotta cracked off a windowsill eight stories up, plummeting to the street and striking them both. Frierson survived. Greene was rushed to the hospital with brain injuries and pronounced dead the following day.

Worse yet, the tragedy was preventable. Years before the accident took place, an engineer had told the building’s owners, Esplanade Venture Partnership, that terracotta on the facade needed to be repaired, according to Tim Hogan, Deputy Commissioner of Enforcement at the Department of Buildings (DOB). The DOB, in turn, ignored an email from a private contractor expressing concern about the facade seven months prior to the accident.

Because there is a criminal indictment pending in the case, Hogan treads carefully when discussing the owner’s intent. However, he notes that after receiving the initial inspection report, which correctly identified the need for facade repairs, Esplanade Venture never addressed them. Instead, the owner hired contractors to do different work on the exterior, then hired a new engineer to write the building off as “OK-SAFE” on an FISP report five years before the accident.

New York City’s Department of Investigation found that that engineer, Maqsood Faruqi, never visited the building. Faruqi pled guilty to filing a false instrument and was sentenced to two years’ probation.

Engineer Richard Koenigsberg of Koenigsberg Engineering was hired two months after Greene’s death by the Esplanade, where he oversaw extensive repairs and restoration on the building’s exterior. The work took about two years and ended up costing $1.58 million. Under Koenigsberg’s directives, workers replaced eight large terracotta balconies on the thirteenth floor with fiber-reinforced plastic replicas, replaced several hundred smaller pieces of terracotta (window sills, ledges, lintels), and did routine repairs and maintenance.

While careful not to jump to any conclusions about how the previous engineer might have come to okay the earlier work, Koenigsberg says “it’s inconceivable this building was safe” at the time of the supposed inspection. He adds that the kind of rubber-stamping that appears to have happened at the Esplanade is more likely to occur when building owners don’t like the assessment an engineer gives them and so decide to “backdoor it” by giving contractors the okay to find a new engineer to perform the FISP inspection. Those subcontracted engineers, Koeningsberg claims, are thus incentivized to sign off on the work of the contractors who got them their job. 

“I can’t say that that’s a systemic problem, no,” DOB’s Hogan says, adding that the hiring of contractors and engineers is less important than a fundamental truth: that responsibility for the maintenance and safety of every building falls on the building’s owners.

“If you maintain it, you’re going to save lives,” says Hogan. “And when you think about taking short cuts around certain things [in] a co-op or a condo… you’re going to have a lot more problems in the liability world and the lawsuit world than it’s going to cost you to have somebody do a facade report.”

For Esplanade Venture Partnership’s principal owner, Alexander Scharf, failure to heed the original engineer’s report led to a tragedy outside his building and a date in court, where Scharf faces a maximum penalty of a $25,000 fine, one year in prison, or both. This story has a lesson for every co-op and condo board: facade repairs are not the place to pinch pennies.

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