By: Michael Frech

In 1979 Barnard College student Grace Gold was killed by masonry falling from a building facade in Manhattan. In reaction, the NYC DOB created and implemented Local Law 10 of 1980, which later evolved into Local Law 11 of 1998 and now the Facade Inspection Safety Program. Owners of applicable buildings are required to have their exterior walls and appurtenances inspected by a licensed Registered Architect or Professional Engineer who would then provide a report to the NYC DOB. More recently, two young people fell to their deaths in separate incidents when railings they were leaning on gave way. These tragedies were the impetus for the increased emphasis on railing inspections in FISP reports, even requiring inspections to be done retroactively.

Similarly, the collapse of a retaining wall onto the Henry Hudson Parkway in 2005, raised awareness of citywide aging retaining walls. Following this collapse, the city’s No-Penalty Retaining Wall Inspection Program was launched. NYC building inspectors would inspect a retaining wall and if any deficiencies were identified, the owner would be provided time to repair the wall without receiving a violation. This no penalty grace period is coming to an end as Local Law 37 of 2008 is implemented over the next 5 years.

The procedures and report requirements of Local Law 37 of 2008 appear to be modeled after FISP with similar inspector qualifications and inspection procedures. The parameters of the law require that the wall be at least 10 ft. tall and facing a public right-of-way. The reports must be submitted to the DOB in 5-year intervals with designations, fines and filings all very similar to FISP.

Just as Local Law 10 evolved into Local Law 11, it can be expected that Local Law 37 of 2008 will develop and change over time. The retaining walls addressed under this law can often run through numerous properties creating questions and confusion over the hiring and responsibilities of a design professional. In addition, issues such as tree growth and poor drainage on one property can impact the retaining wall on another property. These blurred lines of responsibility are prime for clarifications and revisions to be issued by the DOB. There is also the issue of access for repairs. A restoration of a retaining wall can require large excavation equipment that often impacts adjacent properties during the project.

While the law will certainly be updated, its purpose is well intentioned and much needed. As the city ages, infrastructure such as retaining walls must be monitored to insure public safety from catastrophic failures. Some of these walls were originally installed 100+ years ago and have received little regular maintenance since the original construction. Through improved technology and techniques engineers can now provide solutions that were not previously possible. These new design methods can help restore a retaining wall from years of neglect.

Property managers, property owners and building supervisors should all be aware of this new law and review their property (or properties) for the presence of any retaining wall that would be included in Local Law 37 of 2008. Contact a properly qualified design professional to perform the necessary inspections, and prepare the required report.

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