Real Estate

New Supertalls Test the Limits, as the City Consults an Aging Playbook

The skyscrapers of New York’s so-called Billionaires’ Row in Midtown Manhattan have something in common besides eye-watering prices: The city still considers them active construction sites, with a range of safety-related requirements that remain incomplete, sometimes years after occupancy.

All eight of the towers were missing final signoff from the Department of Buildings on elevators and plumbing; seven did not have final signoff on fire sprinklers and standpipes; and five were missing approvals from the fire department.

There are at least hundreds of buildings across the city that similarly have not received what is known as a final certificate of occupancy, and the system of temporary certificates that allows buildings to be occupied without these final approvals has been in place for decades.

But the stakes have never been higher. The surge of supertall towers near or above 1,000 feet tall across the city in the last decade is without precedent, and the buildings, skinnier and more complicated than ever before, are exposing gaps in the city’s enforcement strategy that could pose safety risks if left unchecked, according to interviews with engineers, urban planners and former employees of the Department of Buildings.

A building is not necessarily unsafe because it did not complete all of the oversight tasks required by the city, and there is no evidence of danger on the scale of the deadly condo collapse in Surfside, Fla., in June. All of the supertall buildings in New York City have obtained what are known as temporary certificates of occupancy, or T.C.O.s, which the city says it does not issue if there are structural problems.

A view from One57, one of the eight residential skyscrapers in Midtown Manhattan collectively known as Billionaires’ Row.Credit…Peter Garritano for The New York Times

But these supertall buildings fall under rules that in some cases were created with prewar buildings in mind and do not consider significant changes in building design, said Jose Torero, the head of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London, and an expert on fire-safety engineering. Some fire resistance calculations, for instance, are predicated on much more compartmentalized floor plans, not the open floor designs of luxury condos, and fire can spread differently in a building with a glass facade, compared to one with brick exteriors.

A deficiency in one mechanical system could trigger problems in another, he added, and outdated building codes, even when followed to the letter, can be inadequate.

“The answer is, I don’t know how safe these buildings are, and nobody does,” he said. “Nobody really knows what they’re truly approving.”

Andrew Rudansky, a spokesman for the buildings department, said the city’s construction and fire-resistance standards are more stringent than national standards. “New York City has some of the strongest, safest building code requirements in the world, and they’re updated regularly to keep pace with changes in the industry,” he said, citing several changes announced in April.

Still, a lack of transparency in the city’s building system could obscure early signs of larger issues, especially for this class of once-impossible supertalls that have only recently taken root in the city. The department’s digital filing system, parts of it decades old, can feel labyrinthine even for seasoned professionals, making it hard to understand why some tasks remain incomplete. In recent years the city has introduced a new system, DOB Now, but many details related to certificate of occupancy issues are not readily available to the public.

An earlier New York Times investigation of 432 Park Avenue, a nearly 1,400-foot condo tower with more than 30 incomplete oversight tasks required by the Department of Buildings, revealed multimillion-dollar floods caused by plumbing defects, malfunctioning elevators, and claims by an engineering firm of “actual life safety issues,” which generally refer to problems with sprinklers, egress, or other fire-related issues that can be life threatening in some circumstances.

New York has become a magnet for these supertall towers because of a mix of speculative investment and a land-use system that has encouraged increasingly narrow buildings to reach new heights.

The Steinway Tower, for instance, a new 1,428-foot luxury condo on Billionaires’ Row, is 24 times taller than it is wide, making it one of the world’s thinnest buildings — or roughly eight times skinnier than the Empire State Building.

“There are technical differences in these supertalls that go beyond just a matter of additional feet,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, an author and a board member of the Center for the Living City, an urban development watchdog. “The system was already too permissive, but the challenges today, on an engineering and construction basis, are even more grave.”

For decades, as a way to expedite development, the city has allowed developers to close on units and begin move-ins with a T.C.O., a provisional, typically 90-day pass that says at least part of the building is safe to inhabit, but that outstanding requirements remain.

Obtaining a final certificate of occupancy is the end goal, but the city’s tallest residential buildings rarely achieve it, according to a Times analysis of building records. Since 2012, among new residential buildings with at least 25 units, 3,586 buildings, or 77 percent, obtained the final certificate. But only 3 of the 25 tallest residential buildings, or 12 percent, did the same. Mr. Rudansky, the spokesman for the department, said its own review produced different figures, but arrived at similar percentages.

“The onus is on the owners and their contractors to finish the unresolved issues, complete all of the projects in their building, and request a final C.O. when they are ready,” Mr. Rudansky said.

Martin Rebholz, the deputy commissioner of development at the Department of Buildings, said that T.C.O.s are not issued unless the building is safe.

The developers of all eight supertalls on Billionaires’ Row declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

“Endless T.C.O.s are the scam by which unsafe occupancy is perpetuated throughout N.Y.C.,” said John Young, an architect and former plan examiner with the Department of Buildings. “It’s just how people avoid completing the job until someone raises hell.”

The condo board at 432 Park, the skinny, six-year-old condo designed by the firm of Rafael Viñoly, last week sued the sponsor and members of the development team at CIM Group and Macklowe Properties to repair some 1,500 construction and design defects in common elements, many that represent “life safety” issues. They are seeking $125 million, not including punitive damages or separate claims by individual residents.

The nearly 1,400-foot tower at 432 Park Avenue in Midtown, Manhattan, where an engineering firm cited “actual life safety” issues related to its construction. The building has not finished certifying the safety of several aspects of construction, six years after opening to residents.Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

There have been at least three separate floods since 2016 that have cost condo owners millions of dollars, and they were caused by faulty plumbing near the top of the building, according to lawsuits and management emails obtained by The Times. During a November 2016 flood in a mechanical area of the 74th floor, water entered elevator shafts, removing two elevators from service for weeks. Since 2015, the building has filed 36 T.C.O.s, but the developers have yet to finish certifying the safety of the standpipe and sprinklers, among other items.

The lawsuit also revealed new problems, including a June incident in which a contractor, while trying to patch up “persistent water infiltration” on a sub-level of the building, mistakenly drilled into electrical wiring, causing an explosion that knocked out power for some residents and shut down the air-conditioning system for a total cost of $1.5 million.

“Each and every commitment and term contained in the 432 Park Offering Plan and Declaration has been honored,” a spokesman for the sponsor, which includes CIM Group, said in a statement, adding that some of the remaining “maintenance and close-out items” have been obstructed by the condo board. The other developer, Macklowe Properties, did not return requests for comment.

Temporary certificates of occupancy are granted with the expectation that the builder will make progress on unresolved issues, which can range from broken light bulbs to elevator malfunctions and failed inspections. They can be renewed several times, but are not to be used for longer than two years, according to the New York State Multiple Dwelling Law — a rule that is routinely ignored.

“It’s an absolutely crazy system, where you could have buildings getting T.C.O.s for 30 years, four times a year,” said George M. Janes, a New York urban planner.

There are no city-enforced penalties for not completing certification, but buildings without permanent certificates can have difficulty getting new financing or face higher insurance premiums.

Properties that still operate on T.C.O.s years after first receiving them include the Department of Buildings headquarters, the New York Times headquarters, the Fox News headquarters, and Trump World Tower.

Buildings relying on temporary certificates are supposed to be reinspected by the city about every 18 months, or else the pass cannot be renewed, Mr. Rebholz said, but the city does not keep track of when those inspections are due and instead relies on building owners to seek re-inspection.

Mr. Torero, the engineering professor, noted though, that the passes are temporary for a reason. Design issues can arise between the time of issuance and the completion of buildings, especially on more complex projects like supertalls.

One reason so few large buildings complete the certification process is because it can get very cumbersome, said Walter Marin, the senior principal at Marin Architects and a building consultant. For final approval, an owner must clear all open building violations and open construction applications, which can include numerous renovation projects by individual tenants.

Many unresolved issues at buildings with temporary certificates of occupancy could be minor, or related to paperwork incorrectly filed, Mr. Marin said.

But the process is complicated by the fact that since the 1970s — when the city was in a financial tailspin and budget cuts strained the department — some aspects of inspection in New York have been handled by outside contractors who are hired by the developers, not the buildings department.

“The government has decided to offload responsibility from itself to private industry,” said Steven Zirinsky, the co-chair of the building codes committee at the American Institute of Architect’s New York chapter. “So the expertise level that used to exist in the city doesn’t anymore.”

A streetside view of West 57th Street, where several of New York’s newest residential skyscrapers have been constructed nearby.Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

Resolving issues flagged by the buildings department is not often a high priority for developers, Mr. Marin said, unless new financing is needed. “It’s like parking tickets — you only pay it when you have to refinance or buy a car,” he said.

The city partly acknowledged this shortcoming with the introduction last year of an “interim certificate of occupancy,” a pass that allows occupancy of a portion of a building without a need for renewal, even if there are other parts of the project with unresolved issues. But there are still no deadlines for building owners to complete these outstanding tasks.

“My view is, if the building doesn’t have a final C.O., there should be a public notice on the front door,” Mr. Young, the former plan examiner, said. He fears that change will only come after something goes wrong. “One disaster will change all of this.”

Jacob Meschke contributed research.

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