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BUILDING OPERATIONS

HOW NYC CO-OP AND CONDOS OPERATE

Pedestrian Death Highlights Need for Vigilance on Terra Cotta

Bill Morris in Building Operations on December 20, 2019

New York City

Terra cotta, facade inspections, FISP, sidewalk sheds, pedestrian fatality.
Dec. 20, 2019

New York City is notorious for closing the barn door after the horse has escaped. Witness the bollards the city installed on the Hudson River bike path after a terrorist drove a truck onto the path in 2017, killing eight people. 

In keeping with this tradition, the day after a decorative detail fell from a building and killed a pedestrian on Seventh Avenue, the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) undertook a citywide sweep of all 1,331 facades deemed to require urgent work. A DOB spokesman said the inspectors ordered “additional protections for the public if needed.”

Meanwhile, the Real Deal reports, more than half of the 4,790 Environmental Control Board violations related to facades over the past five years remain active. The city is owed nearly $3 million for those infractions, most of which are for failing to report inspections or repairs. 

The object that killed 60-year-old architect Erica Tishman outside 729 Seventh Avenue on Tuesday has been identified as a piece of decorative terra cotta, a common flourish on city buildings beginning in the late 19th century. Terra cotta is clay that’s shaped in a mold, then dried, glazed, and fired in a kiln. (Sometimes the glazing is skipped.) Many of these pieces are fastened to building exteriors with metal anchors, which can corrode and fail, sending the terra cotta plunging to the street. It was a piece of falling terra cotta that killed a young Barnard College student named Grace Gold in 1979, inspiring the city to pass long-overdue facade inspection rules, now known as the Facade Inspection and Safety Program (FISP). Another example of belatedly closing the barn door. 

Dan Allen, a partner at CTA Architects and an authority on terra cotta, advises co-op and condo boards in buildings with terra cotta decorations to be diligent about inspecting their facades. “If you have any suspicion, go take a look,” Allen says. “Boom trucks make it easy to get up close. The easiest way to find a crack you can’t see is for a trained professional to sound it – hit it with a soft hammer and hear it and feel it.” 

If professionals detect compromised terra cotta – or any other building material – Allen advises boards to take prompt action. “You should put up a sidewalk shed immediately,” he says. “If there’s any doubt, sidewalk sheds are cheap compared to liability.” 

The owner of 729 Seventh Avenue, Himmel + Meringoff Properties, is likely to learn this lesson the hard way. Nearly eight months ago, city officials fined the owner $1,250 for failing to maintain the building’s facade. According to the Real Deal, the owner paid the penalty but never documented that the damaged terra-cotta identified by city inspectors was repaired. Nor did it install a sidewalk shed to protect passersby. And now Erica Tishman is dead. 

The DOB had proposed stricter rules and higher fines for FISP before Tuesday’s tragedy. There will be a public hearing on the proposed changes at 10 A.M. on Monday, Dec. 30 at 280 Broadway (4th floor).

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