Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Open "letter" to all those who care about this sort of thing...

Sins of omission and commission
These are strange days indeed when a neighborhood can "celebrate" the simple enforcement and compliance of the law. This week another small, lets say, "victory". Armory Plaza workers have been out in the rain removing all the recently installed re-bar and metal decking from the offending section of their building's rear yard that is not part of the commercial zoning overlay. It looks like they are also dismantling the steel I-beam support structure as well. Approximately 1800 square feet worth. A pretty sizable chunk. It amazes me how such a blunder could possible have occurred. The owner/developer/builder has been on the site every day supervising the construction. Surely they must be working from a set of approved plans and not just making it up as they go along. Maybe they were ill advised, or maybe they were hoping that no one would notice until it was too late.

To Protect and Serve

Yet again, it looks like the local South Slope citizens must bear the burden of responsibility for policing NYC's building codes, zoning rules and regulations. No easy feat even for those who can afford to pay attention.

What exactly does it take to make this happen? Calling 311 with a well targeted complaint doesn't always start the ball rolling, but it begins the official documentation trail of tears. You will need to make the trip downtown to 210 Joralemon Street, 8th floor and, if the gods aren't too constipated that day, you may miraculously find and then purchase a copy of the drawings on file for as little as $150. Next, locate a sympathetic architect familiar with City Planning's zoning rules willing to go over those said plans looking for anything out of the ordinary that may help your cause. In this case it didn't take very long to uncover the error. All one had to do was look out their rear window to see that what was being built didn't match up with what was on paper.
Heavy Lifting
If your lucky enough to have someone like Assemblymember Jim Brennan fighting on your behalf, your concerns will eventually be seen by someone who actually has the power to pull the plug on the builder. Someone like Mr.Magdi Mossad R.E., the Brooklyn Borough Commissioner at the Department of Buildings. Here is the letter Jim sent at our request from September 28th, 2007 to Commissioner Mossad.

The Commissioner's response, in part, to this letter came on October 2nd.
"The site at 406 15th Street is not overbuilt in terms of zoning floor area. It is to be noted that sub-cellars and cellars are not counted as floor area as per ZR 12-10. Please be advised that the plans approved on 12/29/05 show sub-cellar #1 and #2 are erected up to the rear lot line for the full length of the lot line. The cellar plans were approved showing the required 30ft rear yard. The Department through a recent inspection to the site (conducted on 9/24/07) have observed steel framing of the cellar floor projected into the required 30ft. rear yard. In normal circumstances, a stop work order should have been issued until the approved plans are amended or the site construction changed to conform with the approved plans.

In your letter of September 28th, 2007, you are concerned that the inspector is overlooking obvious evidence of non-compliance. As you are aware, our first goal at the present time is to stabilize the surrounding soil adjacent to the site. To issue a stop work order for plan contradictions may cause delay of the stabilization process and for sure shall not be for the benefits of the surrounding properties.

The applicant was immediately notified with the changes required. Amended plans were reviewed for the changes and will be approved when all objections raised are being answered. The required rear yard shall remain and site shall be in full compliance with zoning requirements."

If it's any consolation, one might be able to squeeze a few bitter drops of joy from this debacle thinking that someone has spent their weekend camping out on the front steps of Joralemon Street waiting to file their Post Approval Amendments.


Here is what the structure looked like at the end of last week. Ready for concrete.

Along the rear lot line in question.

Building according to those pesky plans! Sub-cellar #1 and #2 plans showing no set back. None is required because sub-cellars are apparently exempt. In this drawing as is in life, the foundation pilings extend out to the rear property line.

Cellar level plan (below) showing 30' set back as required by God.

Haunted by Past Performance. What might have been.

What ever happened to our "evil twin" 266 22nd Street? Recent DoB and ECB activity shows that even two years later, the building's Certificate of Occupancy problems still remain unresolved. Here's a copy of the Temporary C of O from 2004.

Description of use

It reads in part, Note: Faculty dwelling units as designed above shall be maintained as a group 3, community facility use dormitory for "faculty housing in a class A multiple dwelling" dedicated to the exclusive use of Yeshiva Gendolah Bais Yisroel, a registered educational institution by the NYS Board of Education...."
The first floor shows a 19 person "Day Care Center for ages 2-6"

The problem? So of course nine towering stories later when the building gets built, there's no sign of any yeshiva faculty or children ages 2-6. I can't imagine that cellar level "recreation room" is getting much use either. Art therapy classes anyone...anyone?

If there is bright side for the builder in all of this, by removing the offending section of the Armory Plaza now, maybe he will be spared future penalties (not that he's paying any of them anyway) and actually be able to receive his C of O when the building is finally correctly built and occupied, how ever many decades from now that may be. Maybe we deserve a thank you.

Memorial Baptist Church Old Fashioned Crack Tent Revival

Its simply carved cornerstone reads "M. B. C. 1891".

Been a while since I've seen the inside of the Memorial Baptist Church. Has it been over seven months already? I probably had good reason. It's always been a very real possibility that if I should ever enter any house of worship, I'd be struck down by a bolt of lightening, smitten with a burning ague, or even dashed to shards, like a potter's vessel, with rods of iron no less. Best case scenario would have me escape with my skin, but somehow I'd be left in charge of the church's coffee hour, for ever and ever and ever slicing bagels and pouring O.J. into little Dixie cups on into everlasting eternity.

It was heart stopping to say the least, my most recent visitation. Judging by the progress being made by the cracks in the Church's auditorium, I might also add "being overtaken by tumbling walls" to my fears list.
Last January the newly acquired 20' long vertical cracks could be described as "hairline". In these new photos from early August, the same set of cracks has opened considerably. Additional cracks have recently been discovered along the western wall as well now. Just when you think the worst is over, additional cracks show up.

On the outside of the building a set of basement stairs is literally crumbling to pieces as it pulls away from the foundation. A single cock-eyed crack monitor stands watch, its bulls eye, strained off center, testifies to the fact that the Earth has indeed moved away in an opposing direction. Is there any danger of the whole place returning to dust in one mighty end-times cataclysmic rush? The foundation has stood the test of time. up until now.

Your Mortar Salvation Awaits

More than once I have seen in our neighborhood, the redemptive talents of brick masons save a wretch of a building from almost certain damnation. Three Hundred Ninety Six 15th Street comes to mind. Maybe even 1504 8th Avenue... or maybe not, it's too soon to tell if that one can be saved.

Who, what, where, and ... when!?

Back on the 5th of June, owners from some of the adjoining properties, including the Pastor of Memorial Baptist Church for the last 18 years, Stephen Christopher, met with Brooklyn's Department of Buildings Commissioner Mr. Magdi Mossad to discuss the recent 406 15th Street Armory Plaza developments. In the company of Com. Mossad was Assistant Chief Inspector Bernard Ross, Inspectors D'Alessio and Ronshle, (or is it Ronshle and D'Alessio?), Forensic Engineer Tim Lynch, and the DoB Community Liaison Ken Lazar. Also in attendance Jeremy Laufer and Aaron Brashear from Community Board 7, Anne Schaetzel from Assemblymember Jim Brennan's office, and last but not least, playing host to the meeting, Community Liaison Tom Gray from City Council member Bill DeBlasio's office.

How this meeting actually came to be is kind of a mystery. Out of the blue, a call came from Councilmember DeBlasio's office asking residents if they were planning to attend an informational sit-down with members of the Buildings Department. "What meeting?", was their reply.
Previously Jim Brennan had been helping locals navigate through the DoB's bureaucracy from the project's start. He arranged for their first audience with then Brooklyn Buildings Commissioner Susan Hinkson after residents discovered that the DoB had "erroneously" issued new building permits for Mr. LoCicero to build his 9 story "Armory Plaza Yeshiva Faculty Housing Dormitory".

Crazy as this sounds, apparently not one of the 16th St. homeowners ever got an invitation. Although this special event had been scheduled for some time in advance, ultimately for the benefit of adjoining property owners, they found out it was "happening" with less that 24 hours notice. No one thought to include them. Maybe the invitations... fell through their cracks?
A little side note: When it looked like none of the 16th Streeters would be able to attend at so short a notice they tried to reschedule. The residents were told no, that the meeting would go on as scheduled, with or without their presence. Tough love, to say the least. One neighbor, unable to take off from work, arranged for a conference call so she could at least listen in to the proceedings.

The exact agenda for this meeting was unspecified. It wasn't made clear whether the DoB would even be open to answering questions posed by property owners.

Information replaces fear?

So the meeting was held exactly at 12 noon in a small conference room at the back of DeBlasio's Windsor Terrace office. Com. Massad began speaking by providing a brief description of what steps the Department is/was/had implemented in order to protect the public during the ongoing construction of the Armory Plaza's foundation. He chose to begin the official script starting in July of 2006 with the damage to the foundation and facade of 1504 8th Avenue and the subsequent Orders to Vacate. We at IMBY seem to recall that the story should have begun, "Once upon a time, way back in April 2005,"

(Selective memory loss always helps when one attempts to rewrite history.
Check out the
Buildings Information System. That's where anyone off the street can find the real time line.)

Before 1504 8th Avenue fell to pieces in July of 2006 there were already Buildings violations and Environmental Control Board Violations on the books from previously damaged properties dating back to April of 2006.

The Commissioner detailed the remedial steps taken by his office since July. Steps which included installing crack monitors and the scheduling of numerous (dozens?) controlled inspections of the excavation site by the Department's Special Forensic Engineering Unit. He also mentioned that a new engineering firm, Demerara Engineering, PLLC, was enlisted in March of 2007 to take over the controlled inspections at the site. It never was clear if this was at the DoB's suggestion. I wonder what happened to the first engineering company who designed and oversaw the project?

As for the meeting, I must say there were several times early on when the thing teetered on the brink of disaster. Decorum broke down, giving way to angry confrontations as property owners and DoB representatives threatened to walk out on each other. There seemed to be conflicting opinions on just how successful the new safety measures had been at turning things around. In more ways than one, there was very little available wiggle room . Maybe holding the meeting in such a small, enclosed office space, excited peoples natural fight or flight response. If it wasn't for Anne Schaetzel banging her shoe on the table top, finally restoring order, I'm certain the meeting would have ended with some sort of honor killing . In the end both sides agreed on at least one thing. The contractors are not very nice guys.

Reading the warning signs.

For one example brought up during the meeting , NYC Forensic Engineer Timothy Lynch, answering criticism that the DoB had not listened to the homeowners previous (before July of 2006) complaints about large sink holes forming, and that they feared their homes were in danger of being knocked off their foundations by the boring and pile driving, responded by saying that after the July Stop Work Order, a kinder, gentler, less invasive, duplex-boring technique had been specifically required, and that this in its self should have taken care of any future "damage to adjoining property" problems. Home owners in attendance disagreed. "Yes, we noticed a slight change for awhile... but only for a few days... that is until the contractors reverted back to their old style of boring with a vengence and then the situation actually got far worse with cracks forming overnight".
The DoB seemed both surprised and frustrated at hearing this new report about the contractors' lack of compliance. "What about all those controlled inspections?", the homeowners asked. Everyone within several blocks could testify to the banging and shaking. Surely it's not something done easily on the sly.

I told you so...it's for your own good.

In the end, listening to the DoB's side of the story only reinforced home owners worst fears. That despite constant monitoring, and plenty of 311 calls, DoB officials were still unable to control the contractors and the deteriorating conditions at the job site. That they had mistakenly placed their trust, and property, in the hands of government employees in the hope everything would somehow end happily ever after. What's even worse is that it seems DoB officials are allowing the contractors to continue working out of fear that if they stopped and did not finish their foundation, even more damage could result to the homeowners property.

They need to abandon their denial mode tactics. Hiding in the in the subcellar until the storm blows over isn't working. The shame is, and we at IMBY believe in the power of shame, have said this many, many times before, the damage was entirely preventable. There was plenty of prior warning. As what would become the afternoons mantra, to be repeated many times during the meeting, "Why are we here. This meeting is a year too late."
But now what to do that the damage is done, the boring and pile driving is over, and the surrounding soil is still unsettled? Conflict resolution time. Bring on the engineers and the lawyers.

"But wait, all is not yet lost. Fear not, and have ye faith, for your walls are held fast. There is a crack monitor on thee." So saith The Department of Buildings.

One good thing that came out of this meeting was that inspectors finally went out that same afternoon and inspected the damage to surrounding properties. That's how crack monitors got placed on the Church's interior wall and outside steps. Seen as a good faith gesture that the Department would take future complaints more seriously. The DoB inspection reports must have had some impact on the developer's new engineer as a few weeks later some home owners received letters from Demerara Engineering requesting that they be allowed to inspect the damage for themselves and, like "good neighbors", perform all necessary engineering tests of faith and measures, including soil borings, to insure the future safety of surrounding properties.

The Temple walls are crackin', now what?
For some the damage to the Memorial Baptist Church may be read as a sign. A geo technical test of faith. A belief is held amongst some Christians that the future of worship will not take place within a traditional brick and mortar church building at all. Ordinary faithful folk will come together to hear the Gospel where ever there is a place and a need, not unlike the first wandering Christians. Maybe the congregation of Memorial Baptist Church is being tested by this siege upon their walls. What will they do if their temple walls come tumbling down? I have no doubt that they will pitch a tent, after acquiring the proper permits of course, and begin anew the very next Sunday or, as soon as the dust settles, which ever comes first. For now there are engineering and legal bills to pay. Repairs have been put on hold until the extent of the damage and the means to fix it can be arrived at.

396 Resurrection

Some before and after shots of 396 15th Street. I would like to see them replace the cornice, if it's possible.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Water Table

An interesting phenomenon is occurring at 400 15th Street. Water seems to be seeping into the recently finished basement. Could the source of this water originate from the mythical underground stream that all the "old timers" keep warning us about? Is this finally proof of its existence, or could this just be a localized welling of the neighborhood's tears.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

See Sixteenth Street Sidewalk Shed

Pedestrian protection positively in place. A prompt response by China Perfect. Score one for the Department of Buildings. Past prose.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Geotechnical Studies

Two additional boring samples taken yesterday and today along the 15th St. side of 1502 8th Avenue. This is the corner building attached to the vacated 1504 8th Avenue. Most likely these boring tests have been ordered for remedial purposes related to adjacent excavation work. Subsurface voids perhaps drawing the soil away from the foundation?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Baby's Back at BBG

The titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum) has sprouted a gigantic leaf! For more information visit the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens web site. http://www.bbg.org/vis2/2006/titan/


Thursday, September 27, 2007

After Hours Construction Work


After hours construction done with out a variance permit is quite common in Brooklyn. Legal hours for construction in NYC are from 7am to 6pm weekdays.
During several recent concrete pours at the Armory Plaza work continued past 7:30 in the evening. Some nights they actually went on until 8:30pm smoothing the concrete. When the workers were politely reminded that construction should end at 6:00pm, the workers said that they could not stop until they were finished. At this site, after hours construction usually means heavy machinery and noise problems.

So, I thought I might take a sound recording while video taping the violation in order to see just what kind of decibel levels were being reached while two employees operated gasoline powered concrete helicopter floats. Considering the reading was taken more than 100' away from the source, the total sound level was still more than 60 dB(A) or about 20 dB(A) above the normal ambient environmental levels reached during similar non-construction times. The noise being produced was similar to that of a lawn mower, or in this case two lawn mowers.

To put these numbers in perspective, sound construction consultants generally agree that changes of as little as 5 dB are "readily noticeable" by the public. A change of 10 dB is perceived as a "doubling or halving of the loudness" and will produce widespread community complaints. Vigorous community reaction is expected when ever dramatic changes of 20 or more dB are perceived.
The Department of Environmental Protection and the 72nd Police Precinct are jointly responsible for enforcing noise complaints in the South Slope. The Department of Buildings "responds" to after hours construction complaints... And from personal experience, their response time can be anywhere from as fast as 24 hours to as slow as 30 days after your complaint was registered by the 311 operator. Sometimes the DoB "resolves" 311 complaints by lumping separate complaints together, labeling them as duplicate or as a "previously inspected complaint". That way they don't even have to come out and make a trip to the site. This delay in inspection time makes enforcement pretty much non existent. That's why after hours construction complaints may be best remedied by reporting them as quality of life noise complaints. It depends on how responsive your police precinct is.

I like to check out "MY NEIGHBORHOOD" Statistics from time to time. My Neighborhood Statistics lets New York City residents know how City agencies are performing in their neighborhood by viewing locally mapped performance statistics using a street address or intersection. Color-shaded maps also allow for easy comparisons of highs and lows in different neighborhoods.

For some helpful information on construction related noise check out the Department of Environmental Protection web page or down load the PDFs below.


Everything you ever wanted to know about NYC noise awaits you below. Enjoy!

Noise Code (Local Law 113 0f 2005)

The City's new noise code took effect on July 1, 2007. Noise complaints continue to be the number one quality of life issue for New York City residents; however the City's old noise code was over 30 years old. The new legislation establishes a flexible, yet enforceable noise code that responds to the need for peace and quiet while maintaining New York's reputation as the "City that never sleeps".

Construction Noise Rules

The construction rules that were written in coordination with the new noise code became effective on July 1, 2007. These rules establish a unique noise mitigation plan for each construction site, offering alternatives for contractors to continue their important construction tasks while having less noise impact on the surrounding environment.

Construction Noise Mitigation Plan – Sample Form

In accordance with Section 24-220 of the New York City Administrative Code, any individual or entity performing construction work in the city, shall adopt and implement a noise mitigation plan for each construction site when any device or activity is conducted as defined in Section 24-219. The attached sample form of a noise mitigation plan is intended to inform the user of the required plan elements that a responsible party must include when the listed devices are being used on site, and the mitigation strategies and best management practices that are being employed as defined in 15RCNY Section 28-102.

* Construction Noise Mitigation Sample Form (PDF)

Construction Noise Alternative Mitigation Plan– Sample Form

When required by Section 24-221 of the Administrative Code and or 15 RCNY Section 28-104, a complete and accurate Alternative Noise Mitigation Plan ["ANMP"] shall be filed when strict compliance with the noise mitigation rules is not possible. After review by DEP's technical staff, and when approval of this plan is warranted, such plan shall be conspicuously posted at the job site. When an ANMP is required, no construction activities, covered by such plan, shall take place until such plan is filed and subsequently approved by the DEP.

* Construction Noise Alternative Mitigation Sample Form (PDF)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Rear Yard Encroachment: Today's Zoning Trivia Question

A milestone of sorts. The Armory Plaza graciously accepts its One Hundredth 311 complaint this week. Special thanks given to all their workers who recently toiled after hours, late into the night finishing the concrete pour to push them over the top. We at IMBY can think of no other way to celebrate this groundbreaking three digit achievement than to spotlight Complaint #3239771. The complaint states "Building contrary to approved plans".

Let's take a look and see what we have to work with. Remember the developer may be using the 100 foot commercial overlay afforded to him by his proximity to 8th Avenue. That could mean 45 feet of additional buildable space within the rear yard's 125' length. But remember, "Quality Housing" in a R6b Zoning District does not preclude the requirement for a 30' rear yard and the consequent restrictions on rear yard obstructions, once past that 100' commercial overlay. Community Facilities, like our proposed medical health center, may encroach into the rear yard but for zoning purposes, a Facility must be in a "habitable" space which is at least a basement. (Cellars do not comply!) You can still place a Community Facility in a cellar as long as you provide legal light and air as per NYC building code....... Starting to smell smoke between your ears? Why am I suddenly craving a brain omelette from the Spanish Diner?

So as you can see in the two construction photos above, the foundation is being built out along the rear property line. The first photo shows the lowest
sub-cellar floor slab. There are two sub-cellar levels of parking beneath the cellar level Ambulatory Health Care Facility.

The second photo shows the current state of construction. This shows the completed cellar level floor slab and the iron work that will eventually support the metal decking and poured concrete ceiling slab. The rear facing residential units on this level of the building have sliding glass doors that open up on to this space.

I think what the complaint seems to be addressing is whether this cellar level structure, which looks like it will finish out some 4 to 5 feet above grade, constitutes a violation of the rear yard setback requirements. If one figures in a parapet wall the height could be 8 feet or more above the existing grade.

Or, could the complaint be targeting the apparent inconsistency in the building's approved plans, between the drawing for the cellar level health care facility that clearly illustrates the pilings being set back 30' from the rear shared property line, and the drawings for the other two sub-cellars, where there is no set back at all?

You can see in this plan for the sub-cellar level #2 that the foundation pilings have been designed to follow the rear property line without setbacks. This is more or less how it is being built. How does one explain this? The plans are stamped January 10th, 2006 and that they have been checked in regards to zoning.

It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how this complaint is dealt with. Any guesses?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

1638 Eighth Avenue's Stop Work Order

1638 Eighth Avenue in better times.
This is the fifth year of construction. Five years of disappearing backyards. Five years of cracked patios. Five years of broken foundations. Five years of sink holes. Five years of flooded basements. Five years of piles being installed and five years of misplaced piles being removed. Five years of piles pounded back in again hopefully in the right place this time, maybe? Five years of stagnant water and mosquitoes. Five years of noise and vibration. Five years of promises. Five years of absolute quiet.
Excavation has begun and the excavation has stopped again, as the contractors failed to file the proper shoring plans with the powers that be and a Stop Work Order was issued. Neighbors were shaken from their beds at 5 am as the giant machine pictured below was "dropped off" at the site in preparation for more pile driving. The DoB was worried about the existing cracks in these same neighbors properties. How will these properties be protected during this new phase of construction? Well it looks like the contractor is not that worried about placing the senior citizens who live in this building in jeopardy. They assume that after five years of constant pain and suffering, 85 complaints registered so far, that the women's spirit would be as broken as their backyards. That does not appear to be the case.