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City's buildings crumbling

By JOANNE WASSERMAN
The New York Daily News
August 22, 2000
Web posted at: 2:37 PM EDT (1837 GMT)

NEW YORK (The New York Daily News) -- With cracked stonework, crumbling bricks and dangling fire escapes, they are among the most dangerous buildings in the city, potential threats to unsuspecting pedestrians.

They include a sprawling city hospital, the city's busiest courthouse, and non-descript apartment buildings.

The city lists 67 buildings as "unsafe" after independent architectural and engineering inspections uncovered a range of hazardous exterior conditions.

The "unsafe" designation is slapped on buildings requiring immediate repair. Yet at most buildings, including 13 that are city-owned, repairs have been indefinitely delayed.

In most cases, owners have erected sidewalk sheds, or scaffolding, to prevent loose objects from falling off the buildings - a practice allowed by law and the Buildings Department.

Twelve buildings rated unsafe have no exterior protection.

Owners offered a variety of reasons for not making repairs: They couldn't afford the cost, they were getting around to it or the Buildings Department made a mistake, or had not caught up with recent, favorable inspections.

The facades of 10,000 city buildings six stories and higher must be inspected every five years by experts hired by the owners.

The most recent available inspection records are from the cycle that ended in February 1997, but Buildings officials say they reflect the current safety status.

The News obtained the list of unsafe buildings under the Freedom of Information Law. The request was filed after a 25-pound slab of stucco fell 14 stories from a Seventh Ave. office building, striking a Pennsylvania Bible teacher. The victim suffered multiple skull fractures.

City officials have refused to say if the building's facade was rated safe in its last inspection, citing an ongoing investigation of the incident.

Most of the unsafe buildings are located in busy parts of the city where pedestrian traffic is heavy: midtown Manhattan, Chelsea, lower Manhattan and Harlem.

City officials insisted the scaffolding protects pedestrians. Acting Buildings Commissioner Richard Visconti called the "unsafe" designation a "category for purposes of this local law."

Donald Friedman, director of preservation for LZA Technology, an engineering firm that performs the required inspections, took a different view. "It's something that could hurt someone," he said.

Friedman also said sidewalk sheds are not designed to take the weight of falling debris.

"Sheds are meant to catch incidental objects, like a falling hammer," he said. "If a large piece of masonry detaches, a shed is not going to stop it. It's a lot better than nothing because half a brick falling from 10 stories will kill you."

The inspection law was strenghtened two years ago but critics say unscrupulous owners still take advantage of lax enforcement, a lack of manpower and a protracted legal process.

Architects or engineers must certify the facades as "safe," "unsafe," or "safe with a repair," a desgination that allows 10 years to meet standards.

If an "unsafe" designation is given, an owner must either fix the problem within 30 days or put up a shed - which in most cases stays up for many months, if not years.

Engineers privately acknowledge that some inspectors conduct "drive by" reviews, failing to get a detailed examination. The 1998 law requires at least one viewing from a scaffold.

Critics also say the independent inspection system can lead to corruption. But city officials say it is too costly for the Buildings Department to conduct the inspections.

"First off it's essential that the laws on the books be properly enforced," said City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. "And we are exploring the possibility of changing the inspection cycle because five years is too long between inspections."

Visconti acknowledged enforcement is difficult. There is one full-time inspector monitoring city building facades, he said. "We are looking for compliance," he said. "It's a moving target."

The city is in court with three owners who have not put up sheds or made repairs, he said, but can't afford to go after more landlords.

"We continue to monitor these buildings and if we felt there was an immediate hazard we would order that a sidewalk shed be put up," he said.

But that is small comfort to New Yorkers like Hannibal Bunaro, who was having his monthly eye doctor appointment at Kings County Hospital where six buildings have been designated as having "unsafe" facades and are encased in scaffolding.

"You shouldn't be scared of getting hurt coming to the hospital," said Bunaro, 23. "It's unsafe and I don't feel comfortable coming here. It could be a huge problem if someone were to get hurt."



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