In a 1.2 square mile area between West 14th and West 23rd streets in Midtown West, more than 20 buildings bear city permit notices – signs of the high volume of construction in the area. In September 2013 alone, the Department of Buildings recorded more than 13,000 building permits in Manhattan. Come January, however, proposed state legislation against self-certification could affect how rapidly construction and renovations take place.
Self-certification, or professional certification, is a process by which registered architects and professional engineers can approve permits for new projects (or changes to existing ones) without city oversight. It was introduced in 1995, under the Giuliani administration, to alleviate a backlog from short-staffing at the Department of Buildings that coincided with a construction boom. Self-certification allows architects and developers to bypass plan examiners, the people at the department who inspect project plans before issuing a permit. It also makes the professional who certifies the permit liable if plans are later found to be flawed. An architect who certifies a faulty building can have his or her license revoked.
Supporters like the practice because it speeds construction in a city whose growth is often explosive. But opponents, including some government officials, think the practice is getting out of hand. Too many professionals are doing sloppy work, these critics say, leading to a rise in building violations, safety issues and more.
Of the more than 13,000 Manhattan building permits recorded in September on the Department of Building’s website, more than half, or 7,590, were self-certified. Two hundred and forty-seven of the self-certified permits were allocated to the Community Board 4 area. The department randomly audits only 20 percent of self-certified buildings, meaning that 49 permits in the CB4 area will be audited for September. The number of self-certified permits has grown over the years; in September 2012, there were 216, compared to 140 in September 2007.
Senator Tony Avella (D-Bayside) wants self-certification gone altogether. He is the latest politician to suggest abolishing the process by proposing a bill that would give control of self-certification to the state over the City of New York. Avella was a city councilor three years ago before coming to the Senate; no one in the city has done enough to deal with self-certification head-on, he said.
“This is an awful, awful practice,” Avella said. “The problem is the City of New York has never really gone against it. There’s no penalty for submitting false applications, and quite frankly, fraudulent applications.”
Avella spoke of one case in 2006 when the city revoked the license of architect Robert Scanaro, who was found to have submitted “reckless or unsafe” proposals for more than 30 buildings. During that time, a construction worker was killed when he fell, reportedly due to unsafe working conditions at one of Scanaro’s sites. Since then, the potential dangers of self-certification have seldom been addressed.
Rick Bell, the president of the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, said that the Scanaro case is a “one bad apple thing” that has tainted the rest of the architecture industry. In a city where growth is constant and rapid, licensed architects and engineers should be able to file a self-certified permit to expedite construction, he said.
Many complain that the existing Department of Buildings permitting process is too slow, holding up construction and costing developers millions. Dayana Alexandre is the expediting manager at RAND Engineering & Architecture in New York City, and is responsible for pushing through permit allocations for registered architects and professional engineers. A standard application can take up to 12 weeks to approve (two to six weeks for a review by a department plan examiners and another two to six weeks for reevaluation appointments should any objections arise), Alexandre said. A self-certified permit, on the other hand, can sometimes take as little as a day to approve if all the documents are in order.
This is the case for some buildings in Midtown West. A former gallery at 520 West 21st Street near 10th Avenue is being converted to a gym. Martin Abramek, the building superintendent, said self-certification is beneficial because the interior renovation was a simple change that could be done more quickly without getting building department approval. The permit was filed on September 5, 2013 and the work should be complete in two months. Abramek said he supports self-certification, because he trusts the professionals he works with to know what they’re doing.
The Straubenmüller Textile High School at 351 West 18th Street was also granted a renewed self-certified permit for plumbing work on September 30. Though the work is done through the city’s School Construction Authority, self-certification makes sense even for a large building like a school, said head custodian Tom McHugh.
Some architects, however, avoid self-certification completely. A senior architect from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP, part of a group responsible for the new Hudson Yards developments, said that to his knowledge, the firm has never self-certified a project. He said clients have requested it in the past, but the firm has remained staunch in its compliance, even for small projects.
But Alexandre, the expediter, opposes eliminating self-certification, saying it would stress department plan examiners who already have a heavy workload, slowing the approval process, in turn delaying the start of construction.
Avella disagrees. He said that the simple solution would be hiring more plan examiners to eliminate the backlog instead of spending more money on inspectors who find violations. A 2008 study by the Independent Budget Office, which provides non-partisan information about the city budget, found that it would cost the city $7.5 million plus a $1.5 million one-time payment the first year to eliminate self-certification.
Avella proposed a bill to stop the practice at the end of the last legislative session back in April. He said he has to wait until the next Senate session in January to raise the issue again, and hopes that other boroughs will join him in striking the practice down. State Senator Brad Hoylman, whose District 27 includes Community Board 4, did not respond to requests for comment.
Richard Gottfried, the assemblyman for District 75, which includes Community Board 4, said he has always been opposed to self-certification. He said there is a long history of bad actors and bad conduct in the field, which makes Department of Buildings oversight especially important.
“Industry advocates commonly argue that they would not cut corners because it would end up hurting [them],” said Gottfried. “But too often, when a coal mine blows up or a construction crane collapses, it turns out there was a history of shoddy work and violations that had been ignored.”
Avella realizes that with a new mayor taking over, he faces many obstacles. Mayoral candidates Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota are both “taking money from the real estate industry,” Avella said. “The real estate industry loves self-certification. And unfortunately, within the city, the real estate industry donates the most money to candidates running for office.”
Newsday reported that during the second week of September, the real estate industry donated $20,600 to Lhota and $3,700 to de Blasio.
Alexandre said the worst consequence for faulty self-certified plans would be disciplinary or legal action against the architect for major infractions. Based on the Midtown Gazette analysis of building department records, at least 16 of the self-certified buildings in the CB4 area had more than 100 violations. Alexandre said she doesn’t think there is a direct correlation between self-certified permits and violations.
“Architects don’t design buildings to be unsafe and non code-compliant,” said Bell. “In New York, they are particularly concerned about liability issues because there are more lawyers than architects here.”
Rebecca Bratspies, a professor at CUNY who specializes in property law, said that from a legal standpoint, self-certification makes sense. As an architect’s representative, Bratspies said she would tell her client that it was in his interest to use self-certification to expedite the project. But if she were representing the city or community, she said, she probably would take a very different position. Compliance rules exist to prevent unscrupulous people from taking advantage of the system and affecting public safety, she said.
For now, the developers in Midtown West seem unconcerned about whether self-certification stays or goes. When the Senate returns in January, however, professionals and tenants alike may have more to say if the speedy process comes to a halt.