New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

New York Times Facades on 1,400 Buildings in New York Are a Threat to Pedestrians by Mattew Haag

Facades on 1,400 Buildings in New York Are a Threat to Pedestrians

The warning from the New York City building inspector was blunt. The facade of the apartment building in the Bronx was crumbling and a corner was separating. The playground outside a day care center in the building had to close immediately.

That was in 2001. Nineteen years later there is still a three-foot gap in the brick facade and the playground, for the center’s 50 children between 2 and 4 years old, is still off limits.

The building’s owner has ignored at least 19 violations, failed to pay $49,000 in fines and has not shown up for seven hearings on the dangerous conditions.

Yet the city has been unable to force the owner to make any repairs.

Instead, a 150-foot stretch of scaffolding that envelops the front of the building was put up in 2011 to protect pedestrians — and remains there today.

Across the city, about 1,400 buildings are wrapped in wood-and-steel sidewalk sheds not for construction, but because their facades are a serious safety threat. The sites have major structural problems, including corroded masonry and fractured terra cotta, which could come loose and hurt or kill people on the ground.

Many line the city’s most heavily trafficked sidewalks, from luxury condo towers near Central Park to office buildings in Midtown Manhattan.

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Others are miles from Manhattan, tucked on impoverished and overlooked streets.

“Nobody pays attention. Nobody does anything about it,” said Alexander Perez, who lives next to the Bronx day care and whose two daughters attended the center, a half-mile from Yankee Stadium.

‘We Had Already Missed the Stop He Mentioned, but I Said Nothing.’

Scaffolding in New York often stays up for years without any repairs being done.

Despite rigorous city building laws and a string of high-profile accidents, including the death of a woman killed by falling terra cotta in December, an examination by The New York Times found that building owners routinely flout rules and enforcement actions with no repercussions.

Over the past decade, landlords have ignored more than $31 million in fines over unsafe facades, according to an analysis by The Times. Repairs at buildings have been slow-walked or not started at all. During that period, more than 6,000 buildings higher than six floors did not inspect their facades or failed to file their findings, as required by law.

One building, the Esplanade Manhattan, reported to the city in 2011 that its facade was safe, even though the site was never inspected. Four years later a 2-year-old girl was killed by falling terra cotta from the building.

Critics call the fines too small and say the city does not aggressively deploy the tools it has to impose financial consequences, such as threatening a landlord’s credit.

The city’s building inspectors charged with enforcing the rules can impose fines of $1,000 a year for missing facade inspections and $1,000 for each month that an unsafe building goes unrepaired.

The most powerful tools in their arsenal, such as emergency orders to vacate, are applied only in extreme cases.

City officials acknowledged the shortcomings but said they were moving rapidly to beef up the fines, punish negligent landlords, including charging them criminally in court and adding more facade inspectors.

“We’re taking aggressive action,” Melanie E. La Rocca, the buildings commissioner, said, “so that these owners make the needed repairs to their buildings, so that these sheds can be taken down.”

Some building owners have not even taken the basic step of putting up sidewalk sheds or netting, leading to deadly consequences.

In April, city inspectors told the owner of 729 Seventh Avenue, a 17-story building just north of Times Square, that terra cotta pieces were missing from its facade and ordered the owner, Himmel + Meringoff Properties, to pay a $1,250 fine and put up a sidewalk shed.

It didn’t and eight months later, Erica L. Tishman, 60, an architect, was killed when she was hit by a falling piece.

A sidewalk shed was installed hours after Ms. Tishman died, and the company plans to remove all of the decorative terra cotta. A spokesman for Himmel + Meringoff said repairs were not made earlier because the severity of the April violation had been downgraded by a judge who determined that the facade was not unsafe.

The vast number of faulty facades reflects, in part, the city’s successful effort to systematically assess the condition of building facades prompted by the death of a Barnard student in the early 1980s from falling concrete. Eleven other cities, including Chicago and San Francisco, have adopted similar facade rules.

But the proliferation of sidewalk sheds illustrates the weakness in enforcement.

[You can find more information about violations in New York City by searching this Department of Buildings website.]

In New York, sheds around unsafe buildings stretch for a total of 81 miles — eyesores that obscure first-floor businesses, collect trash and, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio, are “great for criminals as a place to hide.”

Even one of the most notorious buildings, a 12-story apartment tower at 601 West 115th Street owned by Columbia University, still has had problems.

In 1979, Grace Gold, a freshman at Barnard, was killed by a falling 1-by-2-foot piece of concrete from that building. Nearly four decades later, an inspection in 2017 found that there were still cracking and crumbling bricks. A sidewalk shed was installed and the university paid $4,150 in fines.

“There is no sense of urgency, and the fines are a joke,” said Ms. Gold’s sister, Lori Gold, who has advocated for safer buildings since her sister’s death.
In addition to lax enforcement, inspectors have been accused of not acting swiftly enough to inspect facades when there are clear warnings. A city investigation after the death of Greta Greene, the 2-year-old killed outside the Esplanade Manhattan, faulted the Buildings Department for not acting on a tip eight months earlier that the facade had a “scary” crack that warranted getting “someone over pretty quick on this.”

In recent months, however, the Buildings Department has stepped up its targeting of negligent building owners.

In October, the department filed misdemeanor charges of noncompliance in Criminal Court in Manhattan against the owners of the seven buildings with sidewalk sheds older than a decade, which includes those used for construction and to shield against unsafe facades. A guilty verdict could bring a one-year jail sentence and fines up to $25,000.

“Sidewalk sheds are a critical tool for protecting the public against the dangers of falling debris,” said Ms. La Rocca, who was appointed commissioner last May. “They can also be a nuisance when building owners let repair work languish, keeping their sheds up far longer than necessary.”

The department has also brought charges against individual tenants, including the board president at 409 Edgecombe in Upper Manhattan, a 13-story apartment building, whose shed has been up for 14 years, longer than any other in the city.

Days later, building officials told the city that the facade would be fixed.

Now the department plans to press criminal charges against owners of all buildings with sheds older than three years, a list that includes about 570 properties, according to two people familiar with the agency’s actions. The agency is doubling the size of its facade inspection team to 22 members and will soon enact significantly higher fines for facade conditions.

In the days after Ms. Tishman was killed, the department also conducted surprise inspections of roughly 1,330 buildings previously deemed unsafe and found that 220 of them had no pedestrian protections.

“The building commissioner is not messing around,” said Ben Kallos, a Councilman who has urged the department to do far more to take on negligent building owners. “Regardless of who owns the building, they have to keep it safe — and the city should be helping out.”

Yet sidewalk sheds remain a common sight across the city.

In the Bronx, parents of children at the Mid-Bronx CCRP Early Childhood Center, the first-floor day care in the building where scaffolding has been up for over eight years, said they had not been told the facade was unsafe and believed that the shed was there for construction.

In fact, more than 18 years after a building inspector first noted the walls separating at the corner of the building’s exterior, another inspector, in Nov. 2019, cited the same problem during a review. “SUBSTANTIAL VERTICAL CRACKS,” the inspector wrote in a citation carrying a $6,250 fine, which has not yet been paid. A partial vacate order, prohibiting access to the playground, was taped to the day care door.

Olga Toledo, who had worked at the day care for 17 years, including as the director, said she quit in 2014 in part because of the landlord’s refusal to fix the property.

“You could see the stuff coming off and falling on the ground,” Ms. Toledo said.

Walter Puryear, an administrator at Mid-Bronx Senior Citizens Council, a nonprofit that owns and operates the building, blamed the city for the faulty facade.

The building, he said, was “not in a very good condition” when the city gave the property to Mid-Bronx in 1993 as part of former Mayor Edward I. Koch’s affordable-housing plan to convert city property into residential units.

The nonprofit has wanted to fix the facade, Mr. Puryear said, but could not afford it without financial aid from the city.

“They are taking us to court like we are landlords who don’t want to do repairs,” Mr. Puryear said. “The city is aware of that but instead of taking a more proactive initiative of how we can work together, the city instead fines us continually.”

An official at the city’s Housing and Preservation Department said it had no records showing that Mid-Bronx had sought help.

Two days after The Times started inquiring about the building’s facade, Mid-Bronx hired a contractor to start repairs, at an estimated cost of $659,000.

The nonprofit, Mr. Puryear said, was taking out a loan to help pay for it.


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