Earlier this week, bricks fell from the 32nd floor of an Upper East Side condo building, closing off a good portion of First Avenue. Just last night, a nearby residential building was evacuated out of fear of a repeat accident from the same building. (Fortunately no one was hurt.) It's unclear whether the falling bricks happened as a direct result of construction, though we know that part of the building's facade was being restored and scaffolding was in place.
And in a tragic story earlier this year, a toddler was killed from falling bricks outside an Upper West Side building. In that case, a city building inspector had approved a building's facade despite not having visited it.
These episodes confirm some of New Yorkers' biggest fears. And while bricks don't often tumble off edifices, "any building gets a bit shaky after years and years," says architect Robert Arthur King. "Usually it's the mortar that's a problem, and if they don't check it often enough, you're going to have an accident."
Wayne Bellet of Bellet Construction says this week's events are "a wake up call" of sorts. Given how many old structures there are in the city, "honestly, I can't believe more of this doesn't happen," he adds. And while he recognizes just how expensive it is to maintain facades, he believes the answer lies in "more preparatory, in-depth work," all of which "requires building managers to plan for visual inspections and careful monitoring of their buildings."
He also suggests that the city's Department of Buildings (DoB) and shareholders keep their eyes on repair schedules and permits filed for inspections and restoration. "If no permits have been pulled, that's indicative of a lack of attention and safety," he says.
According to the city's Local Law 11, owners of buildings taller than six stories must have their facades checked every five years. (That's part of the reason you see so much scaffolding around the city.) The building owner is responsible for hiring a qualified professional to perform the inspection, who'll then submit a report to the Department, according to Alexander Schnell, a spokesperson from the DoB. (Note: Owners of buildings that are less than six stories are required to maintain the facade in a safe and code-compliant manner, though they're not required to file the report.)
Anyone who suspects a facade may be unsafe should report it to the DoB, which will in turn schedule an inspection before the five-year mark. If the description is urgent—for example, you see a piece of the facade peeling off and landing on the ground—it could take less than a half a day to get it checked out, according to Schnell. "If an individual witnesses an imminent danger, they should call it into 911, and the appropriate first response agency and DoB will route to the site immediately," he says.
Buildings that fail to file during their required period will be assessed a violation, which can be seen publicly, says Schnell. Simply type your building's address and click on "Complaints." (Look for open complaints.) You can also click on "Facade" to see the status of facade checks and whether there's been a check in the last five years.
But, Schnell notes, "just because there is an active violation, doesn’t mean the underlying condition hasn’t been fixed. The owner may just not have cleared the violation with the Department after fixing the underlying condition."
If you're considering buying a co-op you want to make sure the building is "in compliance," meaning it's passed Local Law 11 inspection and inspections are up to date. Otherwise, you can expect some serious assessments going forward. "Facade problems are serious capital expenses," says Dean Roberts, an attorney with Norris, McLaughlin and Morris (full disclosure: a BrickUnderground sponsor).
Attorney Steve Wagner of Wagner Berkow represents Two Fifth Avenue, a midcentury white brick building that had a $30 million assessment after having to redo its facade. Wagner's own co-op building had a $5 million assessment (they paid for it by increasing flip tax and taking out a new mortgage, he says).
It's not enough to make sure a building you buy into is following Local Law 11 rules (that's the minimum), says Wagner, you also need to "see the cash flows to see whether the board has spent money on the building. If you see that they haven't invested in the facade, you know there's a good chance they're going to have to soon and you could be hit with a big bill."
He says he's "leery of white brick building because they seem to have a disproportionate number of facade problems—and expensive ones." All the more reason to make sure these buildings have been properly checked and maintained.