Building One Livable City

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New York is embarking on a building boom, and upzoning neighborhoods around the boroughs, with the laudable goal of making the city more affordable. But will it be more livable?

The answer depends, in part, on whether we plan for green space and open space to match all the new construction. With residential towers set to rise in at least 15 neighborhoods in line for new zoning, and the pace of building picking up city-wide, it’s critical that we account for the infrastructure of public life. This means investing in new parks, playgrounds, street trees, and “green” features like bioswales as our city expands.

But the mayor’s proposed 10-year capital plan doesn’t ramp up investment in these critical needs – it actually cuts spending as compared to the past decade, according to a report released by the Center for an Urban Future. These cuts are bad news for public green space long-term, but day-to-day it’s the spending on maintenance and operation of parks which matters most to New Yorkers.

On that front, there is some welcome news in the mayor’s budget, which provides much needed increases in funding for parks enforcement officers and tree maintenance. Unfortunately, though, the proposed Parks Department budget for next year currently includes cuts to the ranks of gardeners and maintenance workers – even in those parks which are part of the important Community Parks Initiative. The mayor’s budget also fails to add desperately needed funds to the Green Thumb Program, which provides vital programming and support to the City’s more than 600 community gardens.

And with personal injury claims at public playgrounds higher than they’ve been in a decade, the budget fails to add funds for additional playground associates – much-loved staff who improve safety for kids and reduce liability for the city.

These budget cuts will hit parks in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods particularly hard since they don’t benefit from the private funding which supports parks in wealthier areas. Regional parks like St. Mary’s in the Bronx or Astoria Park in Queens, which serve as anchors for their communities, will be left particularly wanting. We propose funding a master planning process for such mid-sized parks to make sure they get the investment they deserve.

These critical funding needs hardly constitute an exorbitant shopping list. In fact, all together they would take parks from a paltry 0.55 percent of the city’s budget to 0.57 percent.

When you consider the profoundly positive impact parks have on city life, this is surely a bargain. Parks are essential to healthy communities. They give families ways to relax and connect, and to form ties that can unify the city. They promote exercise and environmental sustainability.

But to achieve these benefits, parks need resources. We need a budget that reflects this reality, with funding for the workforce that makes our parks thrive: gardeners, maintenance workers, safety officers, lifeguards, park rangers, playground staff, and more.

Yes, it is indeed possible for New York City to grow while becoming a more equitable and livable place. But, this can only happen if we invest in the public green spaces that are so critical to a healthy life. On Wednesday at 11 a.m., you can us, New Yorkers for Parks, fellow parks enthusiasts, and members of the City Council for a rally at City Hall, where we’ll continue the call for more parks funding in the budget.

by New York City Council Member Mark Levine and Tupper Thomas, Executive Director of New Yorkers for Parks


Construction Resumes on NY Modular High-Rise

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B2 BKLYN in New York City is set to become the world’s tallest volumetric modular building at 322 feet tall. Construction of the building has been stalled for eight months after delivery and fit-up difficulties at the modular plant.

B2 is the first residential building being constructed at the Pacific Park Brooklyn development – formerly called Atlantic Yards. Tuner Construction took over management of the B2 project and restarted site work back in April.


To Save New York’s Public Housing

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Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan last week to turn the New York City Housing Authority around. It lays out a broad-based assault on a huge problem: the rotten condition of the 328 public-housing developments that more than 400,000 New Yorkers call home.

To succeed, Mr. de Blasio needs to find a ton of money, and then put it where his mouth is. The Housing Authority has an operating deficit of $98 million this year, and its unmet cost of maintenance and repairs totals more than $16 billion. That staggering sum is what will be needed just to get roofs replaced, stairs rebuilt, elevators fixed, mold and lead paint removed, among many other things.

Mr. de Blasio and the authority’s chairwoman, Shola Olatoye, have proposed an array of reforms to save money and increase revenue, like digitizing records, improving rent collection (the authority now only gets 74 percent of the rent and fees it is owed), and charging tenants more for parking. Other ideas include relieving some of the authority’s operating and payroll expenses, and using $3 billion in federal disaster funding to repair and fortify authority buildings damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

All these things will help — around the edges. The closest thing to a game changer is the mayor’s plan to turn over vacant Housing Authority property, in places like parking lots, to private developers for new apartment buildings, with a significant portion of the units set aside for affordable housing. This is a variation of a plan floated by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, who wanted to develop the authority’s unused property with an 80/20 ratio of market-rate apartments to affordable ones.

Many public housing tenants were dubious of the Bloomberg plan, seeing in it an elitist scheme to sell their views, breathing room and parking space to developers and gentrifiers. Mr. de Blasio will surely face the same objections, but is hoping that a richer affordability equation — 50-50, with half the units charging rents affordable to those making up to 60 percent of the area’s median income — will ease resistance while still generating enough revenue to begin lifting the authority out of its deep financial hole. He’s also planning to provide land at three housing projects, in Brooklyn and the Bronx, for private developers to build 10,000 low-rent apartments, to add to his goal of building 80,000 affordable units in the next 10 years.

This new construction could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in operating revenue and developers’ fees, which would be an encouraging beginning for a revitalized Housing Authority. Mr. de Blasio says his plan will knock $4.6 billion from the authority’s $16 billion in capital-spending needs, and generate a cumulative operating surplus of more than $200 million in the next decade. That’s all promising, if true. But it should be clear that the ongoing toll of decades of underfunding, bad management and neglect will continue be a drain on the city, and a perplexing challenge, for many years and mayors to come.

Of all the monumental tasks that Mr. de Blasio has set for his administration, none may be more important than saving the New York City Housing Authority. Its apartments are high-rise, brick-and-mortar insults to the very idea of a city committed to equality and dignity for the working class and poor.

But only when tenants begin to see significant repairs made, with visible improvements in their living spaces and surroundings, and tangibly more competent and responsive management, will it be possible to say the mayor’s ambitious plan is on the right track.


Imagining a sustainable New York

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As the population of the earth increases, more and more people are flocking to cities. The US has 10 cities with more than a million inhabitants; China has 140 with more on the way.

In New York City, 66 year old Michael Sorkin – architect, urban planner, and critic – runs Terreform, a non-profit devoted to architecture that is both urban and green. Two years ago, Terreform began a project called New York City (Steady) State, which investigates the possibility of “urban self-reliance.” Its goal is to figure out what a sustainable New York might look like.

By imagining an ideal city, the thinking goes, you make a better one more likely. How would such a city function? And what would it be like to live on its leafy and fruitful streets?

When we say “green” today, most people think of renewable energy and recycling trash. But Sorkin and his group focus instead on something even more basic – food. In their city of the future, fruits and vegetables grow on the tops and sides of buildings. They also fill our public parks and other urgan greenspaces. Walking city streets, we would be like insects looking up at a welter of stems and leaves. Livestock would grow on rooftops, not on factory farms 10 states away.

Green growing things have several benefits. They absorb carbon dioxide from the air. They provide shade. They help control rainwater runoff from buildings. And they add insulating power to the walls and roofs of buildings. In Paris, a new law requires all new roofs within the city to be covered either in plants or solar panels.

In Sorkin’s vision, one parking lane on each street could be converted to green space and used for gardening. It could even have a “pneumatic disappearing device” into which trash could be deposited. Sorkin believes that imagining an alternative, however idealistic it may be, serves an important purpose: “It gives you a more self-sustainable, more egalitarian vision of what the city could be.”


Sorkin’s concepts are based on the writings of Lewis Mumford, an architectural critic who published his seminal work, “The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects,” in The New Yorker in 1961.

He wanted cities to be more unified with their environments. In an ideal urban landscape, economic considerations would be secondary to an organic relationship with nature. Mumford’s ideal city was localized rather than sprawling. It used clean energy. It had more trees and fewer cars.

San Francisco may be the American city that is closest to Mumford’s ideal. With the assistance of geography, it is many cities in one, from the heights of Nob Hill to the ethnic anomaly that is Chinatown. From The Castro to Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park to Noe Valley, it is more like a collection of urban communities than one homogeneous city and that disparity has a lot to do with its reputation as a charming and peaceful place to live.

Over the past half century, Mumford’s dream has been almost overwhelmed by the influx of more and more cars. Los Angeles and Phoenix are examples of 24 hour a day gridlock. But slowly, there are signs that things are changing. Multiple studies show that there are significant health benefits that flow from reconnecting with nature.

New York has re-purposed an old elevated freight railroad into The Highline, a beautiful outdoor park that parallels the Hudson River. A city wide bike sharing program is encouraging bicycle commuting not only within the city but from cities across the Hudson in New Jersey.

Sorkin says China is doing the best job today at re-imaging sustainable cities, but he attributes much of that success to the enormous power of the central government to mandate the policies it approves. In the city of Wuhan, the world’s tallest building is under construction. When it is done, it will not only be energy self-sufficient, it will actually help purify the environment around it.

Sorkin is optimistic about the changes that are coming. But he realizes that those changes won’t come if the people of the city don’t agitate for them. “We as a body politic have a responsibility to protect the different qualities of a neighborhood,” he says. It helps to dream big. His final comment to the New Yorker is, “I love it when people of faith and good heart collude in this collective work of art we call the city.”


Building-site safety is everyone’s business

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Recent tragic accidents on construction sites have grabbed headlines and made the city take notice, but we need to focus on what to do once those headlines fade. For those of us in the construction industry, our top priority has to be preventing even more tragedies from happening. There is no margin for error here—lives are literally on the line—so at a City Council hearing this month, we proposed a “zero-tolerance initiative” to demonstrate just how serious we are when it comes to safety.

The Building Trades Employers’ Association represents 27 contractor associations and 2,000 union construction managers, general contractors and specialty trades contractors doing business in the city. Every day, our builders are committed to facilitating the safest work environments possible, but there are always going to be bad actors. That’s why we want the City Council to require certain elements on every job site going forward:

  • Drug and alcohol testing on job sites.
  • Ten-hour OSHA training cards. Sometimes the smallest measures make the biggest difference. When every worker knows what to do on a job site, everyone is safer.
  • Installation of a cocoon system for concrete projects, essentially enclosing high-rise construction sites for any job over 10 stories. These cocoons will provide additional protection to the public from debris or material that may fall from high buildings. Workers would benefit from these protections as well.
  • Greater crane-operator accountability through signed inspection verification forms.

I applaud Mayor Bill de Blasio’s call for more than 200 new building inspectors. The council should work with him to increase funding for the Department of Buildings and provide more inspectors for job sites.

The cranes over the city’s skyline make it obvious that we are in a building boom. There has been a 30% increase in building permits issued or renewed in the past five years, while the number of DOB employees has dropped by 20%. To adequately enforce safety, the agency needs money to hire staff—and the council should make that happen.

It is also time that the DOB gets resources to support its Major Projects Initiative, which has been marginalized by a lack of funding. The program, which brings senior DOB managers and inspectors together with developers, contractors and construction managers in preconstruction phases, was tremendously successful in reducing accidents. There is no reason for that program to be waning. It should be growing.

Safety is ultimately about leadership. Our personnel policies compel our supervisors to remove any worker from a site where he or she causes an accident that endangers workers or the public. Every contractor in the city, union-affiliated or not, should take that position.

These steps sound simple, but they’re not standard across construction sites. Each day that goes by without enacting these changes means we are taking unnecessary risk. The stakes are too high to stand idly by.

Lou Coletti is president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association.


Advocates and Regulators Press for Cleaner New York City Waterways

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The little bottles of salt water were rushed in — by subway, bus, car, bicycle and kayak — from across the city.

“We have a woman from Hoboken who paddles across the river to bring us her sample,” said Nina Zain, 29, as she prepared on Thursday to test about two dozen water samples gathered by volunteers at various spots in the waters around New York City.

“One guy comes by bike and, one time, he was hit by a car riding here and he still showed up and apologized for being late,” said Ms. Zain, who along with another staff member, Elisa Caref, 28, were testing samples for bacteria found in sewage at the River Project, an educational center on a pier near Houston Street on the west side of Manhattan.

The center is a main drop-off site for a citizens’ water testing program organized by the New York City Water Trail Association, a coalition of paddling groups that is one of many advocacy organizations dedicated to monitoring city waterways and pressing government agencies to clean them.

And on Memorial Day weekend, as New Yorkers’ attention turns toward beaches, advocates are looking toward Albany, where state environmental officials are expected to announce long-awaited modifications to state regulations that would tighten quality standards for New York City’s waterways.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which is responsible for enforcing federal water guidelines, is considering upgrades to the standards the city must abide by in managing sewage treatment plants and regulating pollutants from storm drains, two of the biggest sources of pollution to waterways.

State department officials said the enhanced regulations would force the city to meet a goal of the federal Clean Water Act that water bodies be made “swimmable” wherever possible.

The sweeping act, which regulates water pollution nationwide, was enacted in the early 1970s when city waterways were heavily polluted. Today, New York City’s waters are cleaner. But many areas can still be unhealthy for swimming, paddling and other recreation, especially after big rainstorms when the city’s sewer system dumps in tons of sewage.

“Back then, it was probably hard for most people to imagine New York City waterways being swimmable,” said Larry Levine, a senior attorney for theNatural Resources Defense Council. “Now, with water quality here vastly improved, it is within reach.”

Bringing the city’s waterways into compliance with the goal of making them swimmable represents one of the most important regulatory actions in many years, Mr. Levine said, and would help set a new clean water agenda for years to come. It would force the city to adhere to stricter standards and implement stronger protections for its waterways.

The new regulations would amend testing standards for fecal bacteria and would, most significantly, affect the approximately one-third of city waterways currently held to weaker “secondary contact” standards, in state terminology. These waters are rated for only incidental contact, such as the spray one might get in a boat ride, not swimming.


Water samples were brought to the River Project to be tested for fecal bacteria.CreditKirsten Luce for The New York Times

The state modifications, which may be announced in coming weeks, would upgrade these areas, requiring the city to keep them clean enough for “primary contact” recreation, like wading, swimming, water-skiing or paddling in an open canoe or a kayak.

Though advocates call the changes long overdue, city officials largely disagree. Asked to comment, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection provided a letter it sent to state officials expressing agreement with the goal of the proposed changes, but noting that the city has continued to improve water quality.

The letter took issue with the attempt to designate all city waterways for primary contact, or swimmable purposes, calling it “unrealistic and inappropriate.” This would force the city to spend billions of additional dollars on wastewater upgrades, which would drive up water and sewer rates, the letter said.

Many of these waterways are not conducive to swimming anyway because of proximity to industry, shipping traffic, poor shoreline access and security restrictions, the letter said.

A more sensible approach, city officials wrote, would be to apply the swimmable designation to appropriate waterways where recreation can reasonably occur, so that the agency could concentrate on improving water quality in those areas.

The citizen water testing network, now in its fifth year, relies primarily on 40 volunteers from local boathouses and community groups who collect samples on Thursday mornings from Yonkers to Jamaica Bay. Test results are posted on the Water Trail Association’s website on Fridays, giving the public a chance to read them before the weekend, said an organizer, Rob Buchanan.

Areas that have some of the highest levels of bacteria, he said, are found in samples from the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek and Bronx Kill West.

“We give out a Golden Toilet Award every year to the place that tested the worst for the season,” he said. “Last year, it went to the Saw Mill River.”


Labor-law infractions cost these construction firms more than cash

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Local construction firms that aren’t following labor laws to the letter need to get their act together in the wake of a $1.42 million settlement between the U.S. Department of Labor and four related Long Island City plumbing and heating contractors, small-business advisers say. With federal, state and local officials on the lookout for violations in an industry where they are common, the cost to small firms that get nailed can be steep, time consuming and stressful.

“They want to start getting everyone into compliance,” said CPA Paul Gevertzman, a partner at Anchin Block and Anchin who works with many contractors.

Here is the case that caught the attention of industry watchers and advisers in part because it was so ordinary. In late April, the Labor Department reported it had obtained a settlement to recover $1.42 million they collectively paid in back wages for more than 300 current and former employees of the four businesses, plus liquidated damages. The firms are Danica Group, Copper Plumbing & Heating, Copper II Plumbing & Heating and Copper III Plumbing & Heating.

According to the Labor Department, the businesses are owned by Thomas, Helen and Leonidas Andreadakis. Thomas and Helen are a married couple and Leonidas is their son, according to their attorney, Larry Hollander, a senior partner at Hollander Law Group, based in Great Neck, L.I.

Mr. Hollander said the companies are paying what they owe. That includes $710,000 in back wages for the period from September 2010 to April 2014 and an equal amount in liquidated damages.

“Resolving cases is often the most economical way to handle litigation,” Mr. Hollander said.

In the investigation by the New York City District Office of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division that led to the case, the agency found that the four firms violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by failing to pay employees time and a half when they worked more than 40 hours a week. The department said the contracting firms cut separate paychecks for the overtime hours from a -petty-cash account, often paid employees late—sometimes as long as several weeks—and kept “incomplete and inaccurate” payroll records.

Significant help

The firms also misclassified at least 25 employees as independent contractors, the department found. “All relevant taxes are being paid as part of the settlement,” Mr. Hollander said.

He added that many of the workers performed their duties for the company for only a short time. “Some workers will only receive a minor amount of money, like $100,” he said.

But Christopher McNerney, a Manhattan-based employment attorney at Outten & Golden, notes that the case helped a significant number of workers. Mr. McNerney assists workers at a clinic on wage theft for New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a nonprofit in Flushing. In the construction industry, one of the most common infractions he sees is a failure to pay workers overtime. Some firms instead pay them a flat day rate, he said. Another frequent violation, according to Mr. McNerney, is failing to give workers their final paycheck on a project.

Firms that comply with the law get hurt when rivals don’t, he added. “When some companies misclassify their workers and violate the law, that leads to an unfair competitive advantage for them versus other companies in their area,” Mr. Mc-Nerney said. “If you’re an employer who is following the law, you should welcome decisions like this.”

In the case of the Long Island City contractors, it isn’t clear what sparked the investigation. “The Wage and Hour Division does not say what specifically triggers an investigation,” a spokesman from the department’s regional division said in an email.

State and local officials have put a special emphasis on identifying misclassification in the state’s construction industry, where it is widespread, according to a February 2015 report by the Joint Enforcement Task Force on Employee Misclassification, a group of state and local agencies.

In 2014, the task force conducted one sweep of a New York City area construction site and five sweeps in the rest of the state. Those probes led to investigations that uncovered nearly 230 misclassified workers, the report says. Employers were found to owe $2.7 million in unreported wages, nearly $104,000 in unemployment insurance contributions, and fraud penalties.

Christopher Parlo, a partner in the employment practice at Morgan Lewis in Manhattan who represents employers, says in cases of misclassification, employers may not hold all the blame. Sometimes, he says, workers are party to it.

Not all employers’ fault

“Often, those workers want to be independent contractors or paid off the books—or partly on the books and partly off the books,” said Mr. Parlo. “To purely blame employers for the existence of these situations is very narrow-minded or short-sighted.”

Mr. Parlo said he has been involved in some cases in which workers threatened to quit an employer who wanted to classify them as employees unless they were instead granted the status of an independent contractor. “Sometimes, those workers are critical to a job,” he said. “They have a lot of leverage.”


Renovating in New York: Let ’Er Rip? Not So Fast

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Robert and Debra Liano thought their renovation plans were straightforward, but it didn’t take them long to discover that very little about New York City construction is simple, easy or inexpensive.

After spending $1.65 million in 2010 to buy a co-op apartment at 112 East 19th Street in Gramercy that had last been updated in the 1970s, they moved in and put up with its curved wall topped by glass block, surface-mounted electrical conduits and awkward kitchen.

But about a year later, they began planning an overhaul, and encountered the arcane process that must be followed to renovate an apartment in the city.

“There were layers of people and process involved in what I thought was a simple project,” said Mr. Liano, a filmmaker and television producer. “There were a lot of hurdles and back-and-forths that I didn’t anticipate.”

It began as soon as they started interviewing architects. “We had one woman tell us, ‘I wouldn’t do anything unless you’re ready to spend a million dollars,’ ” Mr. Liano said. This was almost double their budget, and “before we even discussed what we wanted.”


Debra and Robert Liano and their son, Julian, in the East Side apartment they renovated.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

The couple hired AM/MOR Architecture, a Manhattan firm that was confident the renovation could be completed for less.

To secure the co-op board’s approval, Mr. Liano said they spent about three months responding to “a laundry list of questions” from the architect the building used to review plans.

“There was this huge argument about the brand of waterproofing that they were going to put underneath the shower pan,” he recalled. “That consumed two weeks of my life.”

Then there were the windows. Because they abutted the property line, special fire-rated glass and a sprinkler system were required — unforeseen expenses that totaled about $55,000.

Never mind that Hurricane Sandy delayed the kitchen cabinets, or that the stone countertop for the kitchen island was too large to fit in the elevator or manhandle up the stairs. The contractors got it in via the fire escape.

The job took roughly nine months and was completed in March 2013, for a total of about $600,000. “We couldn’t be happier with the result,” said Mr. Liano, who has since become president of his co-op board.

But he believes the project would have taken longer, and cost more, if he hadn’t been engaged every step of the way.

What follows is a review of the only-in-New-York process for renovating a co-op or condo apartment — a process that requires careful planning, an ability to roll with the punches and a heavy dose of forbearance. Remember that what may sometimes seem like rigmarole was created to protect the safety and interests of everyone involved.

Building Rules

When contemplating a renovation, “the first thing you should do is contact the managing agent of the building to get a copy of the alteration rules,” said Steven R. Wagner, a partner in the law firm Wagner Berkow, which works with more than 50 buildings in New York.

Those rules, typically detailed in a multipage document, could have serious consequences for your renovation plans. Most buildings have blackout periods that prohibit work on weekends and over holidays, and some are much more restrictive.


The Lianos’ project that took roughly nine months and $600,000.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

“Some buildings will only permit work to be done, for instance, between July 1 and Sept. 1, when the building is more empty,” said Stuart M. Saft, a partner of the law firm Holland & Knight, and chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums. “Of course, it’s very difficult to do an entire apartment in two months. It’s difficult even to do a kitchen in two months.”

Sometimes buildings limit the number of renovations happening at any one time, so as not to overwhelm elevators and staff. This means that if renovations are allowed only in the summer months, the sooner you submit your plans, the better your chances are of moving ahead with your project and not having to wait until the next renovation season.


The couple ripped out and reoriented the old kitchen, shown here. CreditThomas Morbitzer

Once your contractor begins the job, the building usually has a deadline for completion — and fines for missing the boat. The owner/shareholder is responsible for paying them. “There are typically liquidated damages, like a daily payment, if you go over that time period,” Mr. Wagner said. “It may be $100 a day or $250 a day.” He has seen figures as high as $1,500 per day.

There are usually rules related to plumbing as well, Mr. Wagner said. For example, if you modify any plumbing, you’ll be required to replace the branch lines all the way back to the main water lines, an additional expense. Many buildings also have strict rules prohibiting wet-over-dry situations, meaning you can’t move your bathroom or kitchen above a downstairs neighbor’s living room or bedroom.

Selecting professionals

Most, but not all, apartment renovations require a work permit from the city’s Department of Buildings. And if you need a permit, you’ll have to engage a licensed architect or a professional engineer.

“The only time someone does not need a permit is if they’re doing ordinary repairs,” said Michael Zenreich, a New York architect who has reviewed alteration plans for dozens of buildings and who offers code compliance consulting services. Ordinary repairs include cosmetic upgrades such as replacing bathroom plumbing fixtures and kitchen cabinets in their existing locations. In those cases, plans drawn up by a contractor or designer may be good enough.

But if you intend to demolish an existing wall, erect a new one or move plumbing fixtures, Mr. Zenreich said, you’ll generally need a permit.

The most common way to find an architect is through recommendations from family and friends. But if you don’t know where to start, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects will have a roster of all of its members, along with the type of work they perform, said James Walbridge, chairman of the group’s custom residential architects network.

Websites like Houzz and Architizer are also good starting points, Mr. Walbridge said, because they offer online portfolios for architects. Look at previous projects and call references, he advised. “But the ultimate test is when you meet for the first time,” he continued, to see if your personalities mesh, because you will be spending a lot of time with this person.

Architects use a few different models for billing, including a percentage of total construction costs, an hourly rate with an estimated total provided up front, and a flat fee for the entire project.


A view of the Liano’s finished renovation. CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

Finding a contractor may be a little easier. Recommendations are invaluable, and experienced architects usually have a list of contractors they like to work with. Building superintendents frequently have recommendations as well.

“Some buildings have published lists of approved contractors,” Mr. Wagner said. “If there’s a contractor who has done a lot of work in the building, and is already familiar with the rules, that helps.”


The old kitchen. CreditDebra Liano

Contract Negotiations

On some renovation projects, contractors may simply bill for time and materials as a job progresses. But for most big renovation jobs, the total project cost is negotiated before work begins.

“Most people like to have a fixed cost,” said Cesar Trevino, the owner of the New York general contracting firm InTrevco. “In 95 percent of jobs, we set the price up front.”

For that reason, Katherine Chia, a partner of the New York firm Desai/Chia Architecture, said it’s very important to have completed architectural drawings and specifications for every aspect of the project before negotiating a contract.

“We try to eliminate allowances” for unknown items, she said, “because they leave the client susceptible to unpredictable change orders.” The realm of the unknown, she said, might include starting a kitchen renovation without having selected your countertop.

“You really want to have what’s called a stipulated contract, where each of the line items is a locked-down number that doesn’t change,” Ms. Chia continued. The price remains the same, “unless the client changes their mind after construction starts, or a hidden condition is discovered,” she explained, using as an example an unexpected gas line in a wall that is being demolished.

In most cases, the terms of the final agreement will be set out in a standard A.I.A. contract, which may be customized as needed. The contractor will usually bill periodically, based on the percentage of the job completed.

Ms. Chia also recommended requesting a construction schedule from the contractor, and having the architect make regular site visits to ensure the job progresses as expected.

For projects where finishing on time is critical, such as in a building with a limited construction season, it’s wise to add a penalty clause to the contract, by which the contractor loses money for each day the job runs late (which could also help cover any fines the building levies on the owner). However, “it goes both ways,” Ms. Chia said, noting that most contractors contemplating signing such a contract will demand a reward clause — a bonus payment if they finish early.

Board Approval

Before starting work, permit needed or not, you’ll have to secure approval from the co-op or condo board. In most buildings, that means providing plans for review, insurance certificates, copies of licenses for contractors and other paperwork, to the managing agent.

Generally, your plans will be reviewed by an architect retained by the building to ensure they comply with building rules and building code requirements. You will be billed for this, and the amount could be hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on how time-consuming the review is.


A new bathroom was also part of the renovation, designed by AM/MOR Architecture.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

“The boards don’t sit there and go through your floor plans, and we don’t want to get involved in the shareholder’s aesthetic decisions,” said Mr. Saft, who is president of the co-op board at his Upper East Side building. “We rely so completely on the building’s architect.”

It’s common for the building’s architect to have questions or request clarifications on plans, resulting in a back-and-forth process that can sometimes go on for months.

Part of the reason is that “even though we’re provided with the alteration agreement, which is usually very detailed, the building architect always comes back with something that wasn’t included,” said Thomas Morbitzer, a partner of AM/MOR Architecture. For instance, the building’s architect might want to confirm certain dimensions, waterproofing plans or plumbing fixture specifications.

To encourage a speedier review, Mr. Morbitzer recommended talking to the building superintendent before submitting plans. “He’s a wealth of information about how the building works, and what you can and can’t do,” he said. “Then, before you go to the board, you know what to expect.”

If disagreements remain between your architect and the building’s architect (for instance, over whether you should be allowed to install a washer and dryer), you can ask the board to make an exception — but don’t count on it. “Oftentimes,” Mr. Morbitzer said, “co-op or condo boards rely entirely on the building architect’s advice.”

Work Permit

Once the board has approved your plans, your architect or engineer can file an application with the Department of Buildings for a work permit, if needed. For this step, many contractors use an expediter, a professional who specializes in preparing and navigating the complex web of necessary paperwork and inspections.

“Filing is expensive and a laborious process,” said Mr. Zenreich, whose firm offers expediting services to other architects. “We track it on a chart, and there are 35 steps we have to go through to complete the process from beginning to end. It’s a substantial amount of time and money, and you can’t avoid it.”


Julian’s new bedroom CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

If you live in a building or district that has landmark status, you first need to secure approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

For simple interior renovations, this can normally be obtained within 24 hours, Mr. Zenreich said. “But anytime you’re making an exterior modification, be it a vent through a wall or changing a window,” he added, “it takes a considerable amount of time, maybe six weeks, to get approval.”

If the building was constructed before April 1, 1987, you’ll also need to have an asbestos inspection completed by a certified asbestos inspector, at your expense. Then your architect or engineer can obtain Department of Buildings approval by either certifying the plans, or having them reviewed by one of the department’s examiners.

Certification by the architect or engineer, whereby he or she confirms that the plans comply with all applicable laws, is the quicker option, and generally allows the contractor to obtain a work permit within a day or two, Mr. Zenreich said.

However, some buildings require that the plans be submitted for full review, which takes longer, and could result in objections that must be addressed. This process could take “six, eight, 10 weeks,” he said. “Or a year.”

Neighbor Relations

Maintaining good relations with your neighbors and building management is critical during a renovation.

“If you don’t have cooperation from your adjacent neighbors because you’re not treating them with kindness and respect, and if you don’t have an open communication channel with your building management company and/or superintendent, then you are doomed to fail,” said Chip Brian, an owner of Best & Company in New York, general contractors.

Indeed, in a worst-case scenario, the management company could shut down the job.

For each neighbor beside, above and below your apartment, said Josh Wiener, the president of the New York general contracting firmSilverLining Interiors, “you should get a fruit basket or a bottle of red and a bottle of white wine before you start the job, and say sorry in advance.”

He also recommended sharing your phone numbers with neighbors so they can contact you directly if they have any problems or concerns as construction progresses.

If your neighbors do call, try to be accommodating. “I’ve had jobs where the woman downstairs does yoga from 2 to 3,” Mr. Wiener said. “Or someone’s baby is napping.” During those times, he asks his crew to try to keep noise to a minimum.

To ensure the happiness of the superintendent, contractors should provide frequent updates and follow all building rules, including those pertaining to work hours, protecting common spaces and using the service elevator.

“In each phase of the job, you should call them up and make sure it meets with their approval,” Mr. Wiener said.

It’s also customary for both the contractor and the apartment owner to tip the superintendent before work begins. It could be cash, he suggested, or a gift like tickets to a sports event, if you know the superintendent’s interests.

Finishing Up

When the major work is finished, minor fixes like paint touch-ups and hardware installation may still need to be done. These items are normally recorded on an item-by-item punch list, which the contractor must complete before the job is wrapped up.

“With most clients, we suggest they hold a 10 percent retainage until the punch list and signoff is completed,” Mr. Brian said. “That keeps the contractor incentivized to go the course.”

For a renovation completed under a permit, different kinds of inspections, such as plumbing and electrical, and walk-throughs by building management, take place both during construction and at the end of the job.

When all work is finished, and all required inspections have been completed, the architect or engineer closes the process by requesting a Certificate of Occupancy or a Letter of Completion, depending on the scope of the job, from the Department of Buildings.

Once you have that document in hand, there’s just one thing left to do: Plan the unveiling party.

Correction: June 7, 2015
• A picture credit last Sunday with a cover article about apartment renovations misspelled the photographer’s surname. The picture, of a kitchen undergoing renovation, was taken by Thomas Morbitzer, not Mrobitzer.


Early Views From New World Trade Center Observatory

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With a step-right-up showmanship that does credit to the memory of P. T. Barnum, Legends Hospitality lifted the curtain a bit higher this week on its three-level, $32-a-head observatory near the top of 1 World Trade Center.

Everything about the design of One World Observatory and the publicity campaign leading up to its May 29 opening is meant to whet the public’s anticipation of a trip that might otherwise be difficult — if not impossible — for some people to make, either because of the cost or because of the emotional trauma that clings to the site.

Trying to set the stage to best advantage, Legends gave tours this week to several news organizations, including The New York Times, on the condition that they would not publish their accounts until Wednesday.

This reporter’s tour, led by David W. Checketts, the chairman and chief executive of Legends, occurred during heavy fog. So it is impossible to verify the observatory’s “See Forever” motto. At first, people were lucky to see much farther than Fulton Street.

However, it is possible to say that the windows in the new tower offer far wider panoramas (even of the fog) than those of the old trade center observatory, which were divided into deep, narrow bays between columns. And an interactive mobile tablet, rentable for $15, makes orientation easy no matter the weather, as the screen clearly depicts and annotates whatever part of the skyline one is facing.

It is also possible to caution acrophobes in advance about the 14-foot-diameter “sky portal,” which looks as if it is suspended over the streets below, like the Ledge at Willis Tower in Chicago. The portal’s glass floor is actually looking down on two dozen high-definition screens carrying a live feed from cameras mounted at the base of the building’s spire. But the illusion is unnervingly convincing.

And it does not seem far-fetched to predict that the bar seats facing the Hudson River on the 101st floor may soon be among the most coveted in New York, though Steve Cuozzo, the restaurant critic at The New York Post, has complained that one cannot dine or drink there without paying the admission fee, because the 60-seat steakhouse and the more casual 100-seat cafe and bar and grill are within the observatory.

(In the original World Trade Center, the Windows on the World restaurant was in the north tower. The observatory, which included an open-air rooftop deck, was in the south tower. There is no outdoor deck at One World Observatory.)

The fog compelled us to focus on the design of the observatory, which Legends, as the operator and developer, created with the architectural firmMontroy Andersen DeMarco and designers and producers at the Hettema Group and Blur Studio.

Legends will not disclose the cost of the project. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which selected Legends as the operator, expects to receive about $875 million over the 15-year contract term, Erica Dumas, a spokeswoman, said.

Mr. Checketts said he expected annual attendance to run from three million to four million visitors.

Last month, prosecutors asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for records that could shed light on whether politics played a role in the choice of Legends, given the friendship between Jerry Jones, one of the owners of the company, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, who controls the authority along with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat.

Ms. Dumas said, “Legends was selected following a highly competitive public procurement process with multiple bidders.”

And Mr. Checketts said, “It was an enormously competitive process, and we conducted ourselves in every way above reproach.”

“One of the reasons we won the bid was our plan to build this space beautifully,” he added.

Though its primary audience is tourists, Legends has evidently paid attention to ever-attentive and critical New Yorkers.

A video posted by The Times on April 19 showed the panorama of Lower Manhattan’s history that visitors will see on their 48-second elevator ride to the observatory. Readers noted that a gauge in the elevator incorrectly indicated that the Brooklyn Bridge was being constructed in the 1820s. The error has been fixed.

Aesthetically, the observatory is appropriately understated, given that the show is on the outside. The walls are of white-oak veneer and the floors are in black terrazzo, with enormous and helpful compass points inlaid at each corner. Calming music composed by Brian Yessian plays in the background.

The 102nd floor, by far the most restrained, is principally to serve as rented event space. The main public observation area is on the 100th floor. Visitors may stay as long as they wish, Mr. Checketts said. But of course, they cannot leave without passing through the gift shop. The most expensive souvenir is a $200 crystal model of 1 World Trade Center.

While waiting to board the five elevators, visitors will see and hear the voices and faces of those who built the skyscraper, including Steven Plate, the director of World Trade Center construction for the Port Authority.

“You look out, and on a clear day, you can actually see the curvature of the Earth,” Mr. Plate says, adding with a laugh, “So, other than that, there’s nothing to see.”

In truth, one has to be quite a bit higher than 1,268 feet to discern the curvature of the Earth. But One World Observatory is about showmanship, after all.


Construction Company Admits to Defrauding New York Clients

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The construction company’s plum New York projects included redoing the seats at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, building acharter school in Red Hook, and remaking, from brick and glass, the Fiterman Hall at the Borough of Manhattan Community College after it was damaged in the Sept. 11 attacks.

On Wednesday, the company, Hunter Roberts Construction Group, admitted that it had bilked clients on those projects and others, padding the hours and inflating the rates it charged over eight years in an “overbilling scheme that impacted virtually all of its projects,” according to the United States attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York.

Hunter Roberts admitted to the conduct and agreed to pay $7 million — $1 million to affected clients and $6 million to the government — in a nonprosecution agreement, a type of agreement where a defendant meets certain requirements in exchange for avoiding a court case.

Prosecutors say that overbilling in the construction industry is widespread, and the United States attorney’s office for the Eastern District, which handled the case, has been investigating similar practices. In 2012, it announced the largest construction-fraud settlement in New York history with a $56 million agreement with Lend Lease, another New York company.

On Wednesday, Kelly T. Currie, the acting United States attorney for the district, said in a statement that the office had a “continued effort to eliminate fraud in New York City’s construction industry.”

Hunter Roberts inflated the bills by altering labor foremen’s time sheets, according to the agreement. The scheme, common in the construction industry, is known as “foremen’s pay” or “gratis” — something a little extra for the people in charge of the project, part of the way companies keep the loyalty of their top supervisors. Had Hunter Roberts made the extra payments itself, it would have been legal, but instead, it billed clients for work that did not occur.

The additions were mostly small — an hour of overtime here, another two hours there. One foreman got “four hours of guaranteed overtime per day, whether worked or not.” When labor foremen went on vacation or took a sick day, Hunter Roberts would falsely report that the workers had showed up on the job. It also paid a group of labor foremen, and one carpenter foreman, more than the contracts with clients specified, without getting the clients’ approval.

Founded in 2005, Hunter Roberts is one of the largest construction firms in New York, the agreement says. Its website says it has worked on the offices of Avon, VH1 and the BBC, the restoration of the bells at Manhattan’s Trinity Church, and parking lots at Yankee Stadium. The company declined to comment on the agreement.

The government began investigating Hunter Roberts in 2011. In the agreement on Wednesday, the company acknowledged that between 2006 and 2013, “as a result of the conduct of certain individuals employed by Hunter Roberts,” it defrauded some clients. The specific clients mentioned were BAM, to replace the seats in its Harvey Theater; the PAVE Academycharter school in Red Hook; Queens Hospital Center; and Fiterman Hall.

According to the agreement, Hunter Roberts has since fired the employees who committed the fraud, has created positions like general counsel and compliance coordinator, and has instituted a number of checks so that it will be difficult to get fraudulent time sheets through.