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In early June, the New York Times (NYT) published an article about McBain Hall’s safety violations. After citing historical failures in its building maintenance, the piece depicted Columbia as ignoring a “façade so decrepit that city inspectors have issued several violations for the risk it posed to the public.”

While this incident might initially seem aligned with Columbia’s well-publicized record of facility issues – particularly in regards to response times to residents’ most urgent needs – the situation, in reality, proves more complex. Rather than simply a willful ignorance on Columbia’s part, McBain’s current number of high-penalty violations ultimately arrived from fundamental disagreements between New York City’s Department of Buildings (DOB) and Columbia Facilities.

The DOB’s Façade Inspection Safety Program (FISP) is divided into five-year cycles, with each building inspected once every cycle. Cycle 7 ran from 2010-2015, while the current cycle, Cycle 8, began in 2015. During an inspection, a third-party engineer, hired by the building owner and licensed by the NYC government, classifies the building as either Safe, Safe With Repairs and Maintenance (SWARM), or Unsafe.

In Columbia’s case, the third-party engineer who inspected McBain was from FacadeMD Architects and Engineers, a firm with a record of projects including the Newark Museum to the 14th Street W and Ritz Carlton Hotels. During Cycle 7, the FacadeMD eRecngineer deemed McBain as SWARM, meaning that the façade had a few repairs that needed to be completed before Cycle 7 ended, but was otherwise safe.

These repairs began in 2014, and consisted of “exterior masonry façade repairs including, front stone patching and rear brick replacement, pointing, still and lintel replacement,” according to permits filed for the project. After the job was finished in November 2014, Columbia received a Letter of Completion from the DOB that ultimately certified that the repairs were completed.

Repair Work Details

Letter of Completion for 2014 Repairs

While the NYT article implied that the root of current-day violations was that “Columbia failed to certify that the façade was made safe after it completed a repair job in 2014, according to department records,” this seems unlikely to be true, seeing as the 2014 repairs were fully completed and certified with a Letter of Completion, as demonstrated above.

In addition, the piece also mentioned that the “architect the university hired to inspect the building in 2014 determined that there was no immediate need for repairs.” While it is true that the repairs recommended by the engineer were not “immediate,” it is important to note that the engineer did indeed acknowledge ongoing issues, rather than blatantly disregarding them.

After inspecting McBain again in 2015 to file the report for Cycle 8, the Columbia-hired FacadeMD engineer reported the building as SWARM again, but for different, unrelated problems, says a Columbia Facilities representative.

According to Columbia Facilities, the DOB then rejected Columbia’s Cycle 8 report, because it disagreed with the engineer regarding the timeline for finishing the repairs – or how urgent McBain’s façade issues truly were. Rather than amend and refile a report that followed the city’s suggestions, however, Columbia attempted to appeal this decision.

This seems corroborated by DOB records, which have so far displayed McBain as NR (No Report) filed for Cycle 8, despite the fact that the building belongs in sub-cycle 8A – meaning it was one of the very first buildings ordered to be inspected in Cycle 8.

Columbia Facilities then said that while undergoing the Cycle 8 report appeals process, a city inspector from the DOB itself came, inspected McBain, and issued violations in the summer of 2017.

According to The Cooperator, this is not uncommon: “Often times, the DOB […] sends its own inspectors to re-inspect the façades. ‘Recently, I saw a man standing across the street from the building with a clipboard and looking the building up and down,’ says one exterior contractor. ‘I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I’m a buildings inspector.” He was taking pictures and writing down all the conditions that the original inspector had missed.’”

Columbia Facilities emphasized that the city inspector’s inspection was less thorough and more assumption-based than that of the third-party, FacadeMD inspector. More specifically, the representative described the city inspector as merely analyzing the façade from the street, while the FacadeMD inspector conducted an up-close, in-depth inspection utilizing scaffolding, sounding, and other tools.

Regardless, McBain was issued two violations of the highest severity from the Environmental Control Board (ECB) of DOB – Immediately Hazardous (Class 1) violations. The first violation, with a penalty of $1,000, addressed eroded keystones and cracks in the façade; a second violation, also citing a general failure “to secure public safety,” held a penalty of $2,400.

Rather than correcting the façade issues with the more urgent, immediate timeline pushed by the DOB, Columbia instead chose to stick to the longer timeline originally put forth in its Cycle 8 Report and to wait for the result of the appeal. In early summer 2018, Columbia then found out that the city had rejected its appeal.

In the process, Columbia paid a heavy penalty: McBain accrued two more minor DOB civil penalties for failing to address its two ECB-DOB Class 1 Violations, each costing the school $1,000 each. In May 2018, the DOB issued McBain another ECB-DOB Class 1 Violation – again for the cracked keystones, along with damaged terracotta stones – costing Columbia another $2,500.

Rather than just the $3,400 previously cited by other media reports, Columbia thus paid a grand total of $7,900 in fines in order to adhere to the timeframe for repairs it originally set forth in its Cycle 8 report.

In response to the question of why Columbia did not comply with the DOB’s more immediate timeline, as the façade repairs were going to be completed anyway, the Facilities representative referenced the extremely extensive portfolio of approximately 150 buildings that Columbia owns, manages, inspects, and repairs.

Indeed, Columbia maintains that resources needed to be allocated to the more high-priority, high-danger construction issues rather than repairs that the engineer it hired deems as not urgent. However, Facilities also has stressed that this situation is an uncommon one and that the department has not forgotten about the sophomore dorm’s facade, but rather simply remains steadfast in its original opinion.

If this incident truly is an unusual one, it raises the question of why the city’s obvious disapproval of McBain’s maintenance didn’t seem to make it a high-priority issue, even among the vast portfolio of buildings that Columbia maintains. In addition, in light of the negative publicity that Columbia received and the thousands of dollars that the school paid in fines, it is questionable whether adhering to the original report from the school-hired engineer instead of complying with the city’s suggestions was a wise allocation of its monetary resources.

In regards to its stance on McBain’s facade, the university has released an official statement:

“McBain Hall has been safe for residents and passers-by before and throughout the current process and poses no safety risks today. A protective sidewalk bridge is in place, and the University has commenced design to address identified repairs on an expedited basis. The regulatory process established by the City’s Department of Buildings is complex, and it is common for there to be differences of opinion about prevailing timeframes. With respect to McBain, at every step of the process the University followed the guidance of a highly regarded consulting engineer who is recognized citywide as a strong advocate for safe building practices and maintenance.”

Photo via Columbia Housing