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Problem Solved: Owners Squabbling Over Necessary Structural Repairs

Upper West Side, Manhattan

Deferred maintenance, Florida condo collapse, parking garage, condo owners.

Severely corroded steel in the parking garage (left), and beam repair in progress.

Nov. 22, 2022

As part of our ongoing Problem Solved series, Habitat spoke with Kevin Bone, a co-founder of Bone/Levine Architects.

The diagnosis. In the spring of 2017 I was called by a senior building manager of a 19-story Upper West Side condominium about the electrical service room located below a pedestrian plaza. The room had extensive water infiltration, and, as a result, the electrical equipment and its cabinets had severely corroded. We did some probing with a contractor, and it was our conclusion that the problems went beyond simply corrosion to the electrical service but also were structural and related to the primary waterproofing of the plaza deck above. We felt that this ongoing water infiltration from the plaza was compromising the structural integrity of a below-grade parking garage.

The prescription. We encouraged ownership to do a proper investigation of this and move down a path towards the maintenance of it all. It's not unusual that there is some shared responsibility in the governance of a building, but this one was particularly complicated. There was the entity of the parking garage, which is an owner in the condominium. There are two levels of below-grade parking. There is an institutional stakeholder that owned many of the residential and commercial condominium spaces. Finally, there were some individual residential owners and a religious institution that owned some shared infrastructure. So we really had three primary stakeholders and a secondary stakeholder. And these parties had to come together and address the evaluation that the building faced significant maintenance issues and needed to address them.

Self-interest and foot-dragging. There’s often a process where if someone's individual interests are compromised by these common building maintenance agendas, they’ll question the opinions. That was the case here. Sometimes the question is simply an effort to divert attention. When they finally engaged a structural engineer, he reinforced the prevailing opinions that something needed to be done. So that moved us into a phase of negotiations, which inevitably involves attorneys. So even though the common interest of all these entities was the proper care of the building, they found themselves in an adversarial relationship, with each party trying to compete for what was best for them. And in the meantime, the calendar is clicking forward.

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Complications arise. The building had moved into its cycle under the Facade Inspection and Safety Program. The facades had begun to develop some unsafe conditions, so sidewalk sheds were put up on the plaza. Life was getting more complicated. Then the world changed in June of 2021 when the Champlain Towers in South Florida collapsed, and suddenly the issue of neglected maintenance was front and center on every board. That lit a fire under everyone. The foot-dragging became unacceptable. The structural engineer agreed with me, an architect, that if this building did not take action, we were going to the Department of Buildings. If we’re aware of a condition that potentially compromises public safety, we're obligated to report that to the DOB.

A valuable lesson. Without question I can say that deferred maintenance is more costly than maintenance that's done in a timely way. And that's due to two factors. One, a building that requires maintenance tends to be in a situation of accelerating deterioration — that is, what starts as a very little problem quickly becomes a very big problem. The other factor is that all parties benefit enormously by quickly getting to the table and agreeing on common goals, because the deferred maintenance not only gets more complicated but the professional fees get more complicated. Every entity at that table was spending money on attorneys. And all of that expenditure on the attorneys didn't actually help to get to the common goal, which is the proper, safe maintenance and protection of the asset. So that would be my takeaway.

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