AS CITY VOWS NEW FACADE CRACKDOWN, OLD VIOLATIONS LEAVE BUILDINGS ‘UNSAFE’
The five-star Lotte New York Palace, featured on “Gossip Girl,” beckons guests and selfie-takers with an Instagram-ready courtyard, ringed by a mansion-like 19th century brownstone at the base of a modern hotel tower. But what visitors may not know is that months ago, a city building inspector flagged the Madison Avenue property’s owner, the Archdiocese of New York, for failing to put up a sidewalk shed or other measures to protect passersby from a facade deemed dangerous. The $10,000 fine for “failure to take required measures to protect public safety” — and two other fines totaling $3,750 for failure to maintain exteriors — followed a March 2019 engineering report that found broken roof tiles, deteriorating chimneys and loose safety railings, among other potential hazards, records show. The Palace is one of more than 300 buildings citywide that have open violations in city Department of Buildings records for not putting protections in place to shield passersby in the event a piece of facade crumbles or collapses following a failed inspection. The risks of deteriorating materials dozens of feet above ground came into tragic view last month, when architect Erica Tishman was killed near Times Square by a piece of terra cotta that broke free from a building and plummeted. The Department of Buildings swiftly announced it would inspect 1,331 buildings whose mandatory every-five-year inspections had found their facades unsafe, “to determine if they required additional pedestrian protections.” Of those, 220 lacked such protections and would be issued violations requiring them to put up barriers to falling objects, according to the DOB. The agency declined to identify the buildings while enforcement actions are ongoing, and no such violations appeared in public records as of Tuesday. But even before that Dec. 30 announcement, the DOB already had slapped hundreds of buildings with public safety violations for not putting up sheds or other safety measures — and those THE CITY visited last week still had not put up protections, even months after inspections spotted risks. Scaffolding on Tap On Friday, Roosevelt Island resident Simon Hampton stopped by the Palace Hotel with his sister, a “Gossip Girl” fan who was visiting from New Zealand. To him, protections for pedestrians are something “you presume is a given when you’re walking along.” “You just generally trust that they’re going to be put up safely,” he said. “It seems like a very easy thing for buildings to implement. It doesn’t sound like it would cost very much for glamorous hotels.” The preservation firm SuperStructures estimates sheds often cost as much as $125 a foot for installation, not including monthly rental costs and permit fees. Becky Hubbard, general manager of the Palace Hotel, said in a statement that “the safety of our guests and neighbors is of utmost importance.” She added that the hotel had “previously resolved all violation reports” and would be filing paperwork with DOB indicating issues have been corrected. “In the interim, we are filing for permits to erect the bridge as directed,” she said, using another term for a protective sidewalk shed. The Archdiocese, which referred questions to hotel management, has a city Environmental Control Board hearing scheduled for March 26 on the violations and fines. In November, the Archdiocese mortgaged the property, formerly known as the Helmsley Palace Hotel, for $120 million in an effort to raise funds for sex-abuse lawsuit settlements. Sheds Everywhere New York City’s Local Law 11 requires all buildings taller than six stories to undergo facade inspections every five years, a process first established 40 years ago after falling debris killed Barnard College student Grace Gold. In total, owners of about 14,000 buildings must file reports disclosing facade conditions during each cycle. The facade law accounts for one-third of all sidewalk shed permits, an analysis by the CITY found — helping make the green wooden structures a common sight. DOB has issued public safety violations for more than 1,200 buildings in the current five-year inspection cycle — 321 of which still have active violations for failing to implement safety measures, such as putting up a shed, fence or netting. The building where Tishman died was reported as “safe with a repair and maintenance program” in February, a status that under Local Law 11 requires owners to fix issues before the next inspection cycle. People walk under scaffolding at 729 Seventh Ave. the day after an architect was fatally struck by falling debris. People walk under scaffolding at 729 Seventh Ave. the day after an architect was fatally struck by falling debris. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY Owners of “unsafe” buildings must erect safety measures and make repairs within 90 days — but they rarely meet that deadline. On average, THE CITY found, it took 508 days from a report of an unsafe facade for a building to be reclassified. Some 78% of buildings flagged as “unsafe” following facade inspections in the most recent five-year cycle, which ends in February, have active permits for protective sidewalk sheds. According to construction expert Richard Lambeck of the Schack Institute of Real Estate at New York University, building owners often choose to take a violation rather than make repairs for a very simple reason. “To them, it’s cheaper to get the fine than to actually do the work,” he said. A solution, Lambeck said, is obvious: Make the fines “so large that the landowner cannot avoid it.” A meaningful fee, he believes, would be $200,000 or $250,000 for major violations. The typical penalty is $10,000. Welfare Center Woes Among those still lacking protection is the Union Square job center location for the city Human Resources Administration. On its website, HRA says the location “primarily serves individuals identified as having significant barriers to employment and needing specialized services.” A year ago Tuesday, a DOB inspector cited 109 E. 16th St. for failing to take safety measures to protect the public, and imposed a $10,000 fine. The violation and fine were upheld at a city administrative hearing last April. The city's Union Square Job Center on East 16th Street, Jan. 6, 2020. The city’s Union Square Job Center on East 16th Street, Jan. 6, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY Yet the building still has no sidewalk sheds, even after the fine was paid and a contractor obtained a permit in August for facade repairs. In December 2018, the private engineer who conducted a Local Law 11 inspection had identified “several conditions” in need of repair, including deteriorated mortar and unfastened gutters. HRA referred questions to the property’s owner, an affiliate of Gould Investors LP. The firm’s president, Mark Lundy, said the building was in compliance with DOB safety rules and that a contractor is “currently performing any needed repairs.” But, he added: “given new circumstances and unfortunate recent accident, we have ordered a sidewalk bridge to be installed where work is being done and the contractor says that it is tentatively scheduled to be installed on Monday.” Missing and Late Reports Of the 2,663 buildings initially reported unsafe in the most recent five-year Local Law 11 cycle, 1,552 buildings remain listed as unsafe. Those buildings have had unsafe status for 581 days on average. In all, more than half of buildings that submitted facade reports for the 2015-2020 cycle required some kind of repair. Building owners can request time extensions for repairs to unsafe buildings. But the DOB has issued 1,301 violations this cycle for failing to report repairs, racking up more than $2 million in fines and leaving the safety status of many buildings uncertain. And one-third of initial reports were late in the most recent cycle, including 2,138 that are still missing. Of the buildings that haven’t filed yet, 151 had violations for failing to secure public safety — and of those, 98 still have active violations. Last cycle, 874 buildings failed to file reports, according to the DOB. The DOB announced last week that it would double the number of facade inspectors it has on staff — bringing the total to 22 — in an effort to step up enforcement. No ‘Silver Bullet’ In a statement to THE CITY, Abigail Kunitz, a DOB spokesperson said, “Building owners are on notice as we continue with proactive inspections, strong enforcement actions, and direct outreach, to ensure they are held accountable for keeping their buildings safe.” Councilmember Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) called the increased inspections a step in the right direction, but expressed concern about even further proliferating the sidewalk sheds that blanket many blocks. Kallos has been trying to push reforms for years in the hope of reducing the number of sheds by mandating repairs be done more quickly. “If there is the potential for a piece of a facade from a building to fall on somebody, I would prefer it gets fixed as soon as possible. And while that’s happening, there should be something to protect people who are going by,” he said. “But this whole idea of let’s just get the sidewalk sheds up and everyone will be saved — it is far from a silver bullet.” City Councilmember Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) City Councilmember Ben Kallos (D-Manhattan) Photo: William Alatriste for the New York City Council/(c)William Alatriste In particular, Kallos takes issue with how minor and major infractions alike lead to the same “unsafe” designation by DOB. He equates the response to a dentist prescribing a root canal for a tooth that only needs monitoring. “The Department of Buildings has the difficult task of making sure they keep us safe without crying wolf,” he said.