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From the Editor 21: Local Laws
LOCAL LAWS GONE LOCO
from HABITAT, JULY/AUGUST 2010
Ellen Kornfeld is on a tear. “The city goes ahead and changes the elevator code in December, not giving people who have already done their budgets an opportunity to know what costs they are going to incur in terms of retrofitting things to code. You don’t find out till January or February what these things are going to cost and by then, every budget is out of whack. Nobody expected $10,000, $15,000, $17,000 in expenses to bring the elevators up to code. All the elevators are going to need new equipment because the city is changing the code.” Kornfeld, vice president at the Lovett Group, is fired up because the city keeps adding new regulations, such as its December 2009 revamp of elevator safety regulations, giving those affected by them short notice and not considering the cost. “These changes are costing a fortune,” Kornfeld complains. “It’s become another Local Law 11.”
Local Law 11, of course, is the famous (notorious?) law that requires regular inspections of buildings over six stories. It’s a safety precaution that came about after a Barnard College student was killed by a falling piece of masonry back in 1979. The uproar that followed this tragedy (much like the uproar against BP Oil in 2010), led to a lot of finger-pointing and also to Local Law 10/80, the precursor to the more inclusive Local Law 11.
There are oddities here: the original law, Local Law 10/80, only dealt with the front of the property; Local Law 11 expanded the reach to the back (why falling bricks were considered more dangerous in the front than the back was never explained; it was also left unclear why a building under six stories didn’t need to be inspected regularly. Are brownstones and tenements somehow immune from decay or collapse?).
Don’t get me wrong: Local Law 11 is a good thing. But when managers like Kornfeld say, “It’s become another Local Law 11,” they don’t mean it as a positive. Like many well-intentioned but speedily enacted ideas, this one created a number of unforeseen problems: the city passed a law, but didn’t give a thought to the practical consequences and costs. It was a question of “Costs? Who the devil cares about costs? A girl died, damn it.”
But these things do matter. A mandated two- and three-year inspection cycle means that some people will be happy. The architects and engineers who inspect the buildings are among that group as are the contractors who erect all the sidewalk bridges and scaffolding that has become almost as common as pigeon excrement (and about as attractive). The law has created regular employment for these folks and also for site safety managers, who, by a subsequent law passed in the wake of another accident, must now inspect the contractors’ sites to be sure a loose crane or two doesn’t topple into the street.
Naturally, safety is paramount, yet the costs of safety are not borne by the city. They are handled by the owners of buildings, most of whom are facing rising fuel, water, and other costs. Sure, if you’re a landlord seeking to cut corners, you might do what Columbia University, the largest landowner on the Upper West Side, did to most of its buildings: go to the façades and, regardless of what it does to the delicate character of the properties, rip off the decorative moldings (after all, they had only been inspired by similar moldings on structures in Paris). What the hell, it’s cheaper than constantly repairing the moldings, right?
Or you can do what cooperatives and condominiums do all the time: struggle to keep it all together. Monitoring leaks. Borrowing money. Challenging unfair tax assessments. Working long hours for no pay to keep their homes in the black.
But it is hard. And the motive for some of the new laws, may be less than pristine. “The city needs money,” claims Kornfeld angrily. “Since people don’t know about these changes, the city can generate additional fees” – i.e. fining them for non-compliance – “and there’s no, ‘Here’s the proposed legislation, let’s discuss it and make changes.’ We are just told to jump. We’re told safety is just the cost of doing business.”