By: Carol A. Sigmond
A project on the Upper West Side has resulted in a cluster of proposed legislation to address the safety of residents in multiple dwelling buildings subject to major construction work. Most of the impact will be in conversions, but any building with significant numbers of sponsor-owned units or sublets may be impacted. Buildings making major repairs may also be impacted.
The cluster of proposed legislation (T2018-3314 requiring audits of certain housing-related corrective orders, T2018-3312 denying building permits to certain occupied buildings where false permit applications are filed, T2018-3310 providing for heightened review of tenant protection plans and increased enforcement of the building code, and T2018-3306 requiring full disclosure of all occupied units impacted by a project and a fine of up to $25,000 for any related false filing) appears to target the conduct of the developer on this particular UWS project. The sponsors of this cluster of bills include New York City Councilmembers Helen K. Rosenthal, Keith Powers, and Carlina Rivera, all Democrats on the Committee on Housing and Buildings.
The likely motivation for this cluster of bills is a UWS project that is a partial conversion, partial upgrade, and partial expansion of an old low-rise building. The developer plans to perform this work while the low-rise building is occupied.
From a tenant safety perspective, this plan appears doomed from the start. To perform the planned work, the developer needs to block all the fire escapes except the main entrance and one other. Some of the occupied units will be cut off from the sole remaining fire escape, leaving only one means of egress, which is prohibited for such a building. This alone should stop any construction. Certainly, the proposed legislation would block such a project involving an occupied building where fire code violations would be required for construction.
Moreover, the low-rise building façade is in poor condition. There are leaks, vermin, and mold in a number of areas of the building. All of these conditions have been exacerbated by the Developer’s preparatory work. Mystifyingly, the various New York City agencies with jurisdiction, such as the Departments of Health (DOH) and Buildings (DOB) and Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) have not investigated. The above-noted cluster of legislation, particularly T2018-3310 and 3314, would seem to address this issue.
Initially, the developer filed the property as uninhabited. The developer hoped to have the occupancy of the low-rise building ignored by applying to have a second block and lot assigned to the property. This was obviously a pretext and the New York City Department of Finance refused to issue the second block and lot. Thereafter, the DOB had no option but to deem the applications false and impose a minor fine. The DOB continued to process plans and issue permits although the minimal fines were unpaid and the false application remained as of record. T2018-3306 would increase the fines for such conduct and prevent such false filings based on the pretext of using a non-existent block and lot against which to file the project. T2018-3312 would prohibit any permits on the affected property for one year after the violation was discovered.
The developer tried a second subterfuge: it filed a tenant protection plan that was completely inadequate and misleading. The fire evacuation provisions of the tenant protection plan do not show the blocked fire exits or the units with no second means of egress. Moreover, the tenant protection plan as filed does not appear to consider that in fighting fires in the tenement buildings, the Fire Department goes up to the roof, chops holes, and sprays water on the fire from above. The proposed expansion of this UWS would block access to the low rise roof both during and after the construction of the expansion for all purposes, including fire fighting.
In addition, this UWS tenant protection plan assumed certain structural integrity of the façade and low rise building that may not be present. The poor condition of the façade is not considered in the tenant protection plan. T2018-3310 is intended to ensure more rigorous review of tenant protection plans. This Bill would be improved if it were amended to provide that the Fire Commissioner was required to sign off on tenant protection plans. That would ensure that the plan complied with the Fire Code.
The DOB relies heavily on the integrity of professional filings. Over time, the quality of these filings appears to have declined. Luckily, the City Council appears determined to restore integrity to the process, at least for occupied buildings.