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'New Sheriff In Town': Ramped-Up Building Facade Rules Take Effect After Deaths In The City

Thousands of New York City building owners are now operating under a new set of ramped-up rules governing how they maintain building facades after two people were killed a month apart by falling debris.

Daniel Allen, principal at CTA Architects, inspects the condition of a facade element of a historic high-rise building in Manhattan from a hydraulic boom lift.

With increased inspection requirements and higher fines for noncompliance, landlords have to quickly prepare to meet the new standards or face stiff penalties.

“People are going to have to be ready for it, [they] realize this is a big change,” said CTA Architects principal Daniel Allen, who carries out facade inspections. “It's going to cost them.”

Owners of buildings taller than six stories have been required since the 1980s to report the conditions of their facades to the city every five years. But under the Department of Buildings’ ramped-up rules that came into effect last week, the changes to the Facade Inspection & Safety Program — known as Local Law 11 — owners will have to inspect their exteriors more intensely and have to display information about the safety of their buildings in their lobbies.

They will also get hit with increased fines if they fail to make sure their facades are safe, don’t file reports and leave sidewalk sheds up indefinitely rather than make needed repairs. What’s more, the people carrying out inspections will need more qualifications than before.

Around 14,500 buildings fall under the rules, according to the city.

“Safety is our No. 1 priority, and we believe this rule change will improve the facade inspection process and increase oversight, resulting in safer buildings,” a DOB spokesperson said. “Building owners are on notice that the department will continue our increased proactive inspections, strong enforcement actions and direct outreach, to ensure that they are held accountable for keeping their buildings safe.”

In December, a 60-year-old woman was killed after being hit by a piece of building facade while she was walking on the sidewalk near Times Square. The material had fallen from 729 Seventh Ave., a 17-story retail and office building owned by Himmel + Meringoff Properties, which had reportedly been fined by the city earlier in the year because the terra cotta was coming apart and posing a danger to the street. A month later, a piece of facade that fell from the Golden Shopping Mall in Flushing stuck a woman and killed her.

There are some 1,400 buildings in the city with dangerous facades , according to a recent New York Times investigation. 

The city said in December that it was swinging into action, announcing that buildings it found to be what it calls “immediately hazardous,” would be subject to inspection within 60 days to make sure appropriate protections had been installed, The Real Deal reported. The DOB forces property owners to pay if the city has to send out contractors to fix the problem.

The DOB has added 12 new people to its facade inspection team and said it has initiated court action against seven property owners that have had sidewalk sheds up for more than a decade and who it claims have not made the necessary steps to fix its problems.

729 Seventh Ave.

“We’re taking aggressive action in criminal court so that these owners make the needed repairs to their buildings, so that these sheds can be taken down, returning valuable street space to New Yorkers,” DOB Commissioner Melanie La Rocca said in a statement. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

CTA’s Allen said that, while these facade rules have been evolving over the last few decades, the new rules that came into effect last week mark a very significant change.

Specifically, facades will now need to be inspected every 60 feet, according to Allen, which could cost landlords thousands of extra dollars, depending on how large their buildings are. In some cases, buildings’ cavity walls will need to be opened up and inspected.

Plus, inspectors will need to send a dated picture to the DOB to show that they inspected the building.

“My advice is to start quickly … It's better to do your homework early than wait for the last minute because it's going to take longer to do inspections,” Allen said, adding that when the laws first came out, inspectors could look at buildings with binoculars from the street.

“We're not a new city anymore,” he said. "A lot of our buildings go back 100 or more years ... [and] we need to take care of them."

Golden Shopping Mall at 41-28 Main St. in Flushing.

The new rules could put the squeeze on smaller operations, Durst Organization Vice President of Public Affairs Jordan Barowitz said.

"The challenge here is when you layer regulatory scheme after regulatory scheme on top of older buildings, on top of undercapitalized ownership structures and unsophisticated ownership structures, you have a formula that's a recipe for disaster,” he said. "It's like bringing down construction costs: It's something that needs to be done, but it's a very complicated project. And it has to be led by the city ... They're going to have to work really, really hard on it and change a lot of things.”

Others questioned if the increased fines will really keep pedestrians safe. Under the new laws, the penalty for failing to file a FISP report has gone from $1K to $5K a year. For failing to correct an unsafe facade, building owners would face a fine of $1K per month, plus increasing penalties each month depending on the size and age of their sidewalk sheds.

“I don't think it's going to have much of an impact at all,” said Bruce Kaye, a partner at Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson, who specializes in personal injury cases. “The increased fine structure is just not substantial enough for such an outrageous and potentially deadly wrong.”

But New York City Council member Ben Kallos, who represents parts of Midtown and the Upper East Side, described a renewed focus on safety.

“Ultimately the landlords have gotten a free pass for far too long, and when somebody died, the city had to do something,” he said.

He has proposed legislation that would allow drones to inspect buildings alongside people, as a way of speeding up the process.

“There's a new sheriff in town. [La Rocca] is taking this seriously. She's getting the sidewalk sheds up. She's bringing the worst violators to court. She's pressing criminal charges. She's not messing around. And she's willing to throw people in jail if they don't maintain their buildings,” he said. “I haven't ever seen anything like it. But I think it's the right attitude."