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Industry braced for ʻbig kahunaʼ

Commissioner Melanie La Rocca addressed New York’s Building owners & Managers Association.

In her first major speech to members of New York’s real estate community, Department of Buildings Commissioner Melanie La Rocca signaled big changes to how the city works with the development community.

And she vowed to help the industry as it tackles “the big kahuna” of local laws aimed at making New York one of the greenest cities on the planet.

“We want the industry to be successful because your success is our success,” said La Rocca.

After months of acrimony between the industry and city hall over everything from capping broker fees to overhauling rent regulations, La Rocca said she was committed to working with the industry to affect a “culture change.”

“A collective voice is incredibly important to my agency and knowing where we stand and where you all stand is important to our work,” she said. “Our work will always be interconnected and my department cannot and should not take actions without knowing what the impacts are, so when we say we are committed to a relationship, it means from start to finish. It means we may not always agree, but we want to know what your concerns are and we want to know how we can be more helpful to the industry to get your jobs done so we can all move onto the next project.”

Speaking at the annual Building Owners & Managers Association (BOMA) Leadership Breakfast, La Rocca reminded the group that the DOB is in charge of implementing what she called a “game changing” piece of legislation that will propel New York City to global sustainability leadership.

Part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new green deal, Local Law 97 will create one of the world’s biggest enforced retrofitting programs aimed at cutting carbon emissions from 50,000 city buildings. Over the next decade, the law is expected to cost property owners around $20 billion as the market expands to 13 times the size it is today.

“The mayor has made it very clear that New York City is going to be a leader in this field and [our job] is to make sure it is implemented correctly,” said La Rocca. “You will be hearing a lot from my agency on what we as a city need to do in order to change the way we do business. That’s what the sustainability law will require each of us to do, not just on the new construction side, but down to the simple basics of how you run your building.

“The sustainability goals that the mayor has set mark a culture change and every aspect of how we think about building operations has to change. Local Law 97 is the gold standard of how we all are moving forward and the game changer for each and every one of you in this room and my department.”

Commissioner La Rocca with BOMA chairman Hani Salama

The city is in the throes of establishing an advisory board of stakeholders who will help create a roadmap of what the Carbon Emissions Law means for owners, managers and their buildings.

Affecting all buildings over 25,000 s/f, the law will mostly be rolled out over a ten-year period as part of the mayor’s goal of reducing the city’s overall carbon emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. Specific requirements include insulating all pipes for heating/hot water, upgrading lighting to comply with the energy code, weatherization, and installing radiant barriers behind all radiators.

La Rocca told the BOMA group, “How we do this is critically important. While these goals are aggressive, I have no doubt we will meet them and will do so in a way that is mindful to business and mindful to operators and owners and allows us to do what we need to in order to achieve success together and in the smartest way possible.”

While Local Law 97 is the “big kahuna,” the industry has a slew of other legislative deadlines looming, including Local Laws 92 and 94 which mandate solar or green roofing on any roof undergoing major construction, and Local Law 33, which will see energy letter grades posted in buildings over 25,000 s/f in much the same way city restaurants post Health Department A, B, C or D grades, so residents and tenants can see a building’s green quotient at a glance.

A former Schools Construction Authority vice president who took over as Commissioner of the Department of Buildings in May, La Rocca earned the admiration of the construction sector for her “effective and progressive leadership” within a department that hadn’t missed a school opening in eight years.

She told the BOMA group she intended to apply her critical thinking to further streamlining the city’s laborious permitting processes, compliance and safety submissions with further expansion of DOB NOW, the department’s self-service online tool that will ultimately enable owners, architects, managers and builders to conduct all of their city business online.

The system has already helped the DOB reduce inspection request wait time to two days and bring more than one third of all new development permits and filings online. Online safety compliance filings have resulted in “a million fewer pieces of paper being dropped off at my agency and typed in manually” as the department works to be more efficient.

“An important part of our job is to make your job easier,” La Rocca told the BOMA group. “It’s not good enough that we know where the pain points are, we must share that with the industry and allow you the opportunity to make changes before you see one of my inspectors in the field giving you a violation. Being able to be clear partners and data and knowledge sharers is a critical part of what DOB Now is allowing us to do through our analytics. Helping us improve our response to your needs is critical to our shared success because, at the end of the day, the goal is to get each and every project to yes.”

On worker safety, La Rocca said she will be “recognizing and reorienting how we do business.”

As part of that, the DOB has scrapped its one-size-fits-all oversight in favor of two distinct divisions, one dealing with compliance and the other with enforcement. In a first for the department, safety inspectors are now dedicated solely to proactively visiting building sites to ensure compliance.

“We know this is a winning ticket to success,” said LaRocca.
“We have seen a decline in incidents across the board of over 20 percent this year after seeing year over year growth of incidents. This is a remarkable change of culture and it proves that with presence and emphasis on compliance, having my folks that go out, who see something and tell you to fix it – the answer isn’t always writing a violation but making sure that we all know what the rules are.”

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