Seven years back, structural engineers declared most of the buildings that make up NYCHA’s Jackson Houses in The Bronx “unsafe” after they found some of its aging brick facades were in potentially dangerous condition.
NYCHA installed sidewalk scaffolding to protect passersby from falling bricks until they could fix the problem. And that’s how things stayed at the Jackson Houses — until last week.
Before dawn on Thursday, a big panel of bricks broke loose from up around the 15th floor of 3505 Park Avenue, one of the buildings flagged as “unsafe” in 2016, and plummeted toward the street below.
The masonry crashed down onto the sidewalk shed, which collapsed into a heap of wood and metal. If anybody had been underneath that shed, they likely would have been severely injured, or even killed.
The question now is: Why did NYCHA not do anything for seven years to address a problem red-flagged by their own inspection in 2016, a failure that enabled what could have been a fatal disaster?
“Nothing was done. Residents are scared,” said Daniel Barber, a Jackson Houses resident and chair of NYCHA’s tenant-led Citywide Council of Presidents. “It goes to show that allowing the sidewalk shedding to sit there and no actual work to be done, it shows the urgency and the immediate need for this to get done.”
He added: “What if that area was open and people were walking their dogs?”
‘Aggravated Offense Level 1’
Under a mandate known as Local Law 11, owners of buildings six stories or taller are required to hire a licensed engineer to inspect their facades and erect scaffolding if potentially dangerous conditions are detected. They then have five years to file a report to the city Department of Buildings (DOB) documenting the red-flagged facade’s condition.
For NYCHA, where most of the developments were built in the 1950s and 1960s and the brickwork has, in many cases, not aged well, this has been a challenge.
An analysis of building records by THE CITY has found that since 2003, inspectors have issued 975 facade violations at dozens of public housing developments across the city, repeatedly tagging NYCHA for failing to maintain its buildings.
The records document 127 “aggravated offense Level 1” violations, meaning inspectors cited the same building for the same infraction twice within three years.
Of the 975 violations, 449 were listed as “certificate accepted,” indicating NYCHA had certified to DOB that they had fixed the problem to DOB’s satisfaction. But another 538 were listed as “compliance-inspect,” meaning the fix had yet to be certified.
That was the case with the Jackson Houses building where the bricks plummeted down.
With nearly every violation, records show NYCHA has paid not a dime in penalties. And 733 citations were listed as “written off,” meaning follow-up enforcement via a formal hearing had been voided. DOB spokesperson Andrew Rudansky declined to discuss the reasons for this, instead referring THE CITY to NYCHA.
As a result of all these inspections, NYCHA has been forced to erect scaffolding all over the city that sometimes remains in place for years and even decades. These so-called “sidewalk sheds” are a nuisance for residents, sometimes blocking security cameras and often serving as a hiding spot for illegal guns and drugs.
On Monday NYCHA officials declined to answer THE CITY’s questions about the hundreds of facade citations, although spokesperson Michael Horgan insisted the authority “has invested significantly in façade repair work across our portfolio.”
Horgan said the incident at Jackson Houses “demonstrated the importance of having that sidewalk shed in place,” noting that “NYCHA staff worked around the clock to address damages, cordon off the area, install additional protective shedding and a hanging scaffold to undertake further remediation work, and respond to any resident concerns.”
At the Jackson Houses, Barber said the sheds have been up so long a family of raccoons has taken up residence in one of them.
DOB Local Law 11 records show facade compliance has been an issue at Jackson as far back as 2007, when a “safe” designation was switched to “unsafe.” This year, five of the seven buildings remained listed as “unsafe.”
The building where the bricks collapsed was last cited by DOB in December because NYCHA had again failed to provide the mandated report documenting the condition of the facade there.
Last week after the wall collapse, Mayor Eric Adams toured the site and NYCHA spokesperson Horgan stated, “We are relieved no one was injured and we are working with our agency partners to ensure the safety of NYCHA residents.”
On Monday the buildings department issued a partial vacate order at the site, requiring the shuttering of a playground adjacent to where the bricks fell. Horgan said NYCHA planned to install “additional protection” to “safeguard the public” at the site of the accident and that the authority would work with a “DOB-Qualified Exterior Wall Inspector to evaluate next steps and the scope of repairs.”
On Monday Barber said a contractor replaced the collapsed scaffolding over the weekend — but the exposed wall where the bricks fell remained open to the elements.
Horgan estimated a full facade upgrade to that one building alone would cost $10 million to $20 million. NYCHA, which estimates it needs more than $40 billion to bring all its portfolio up to par, is currently struggling with a gap caused by a pandemic-related spike in unpaid rent that now exceeds $466 million.