May 16, 1979. At just 17-years-old and already a rising sophomore at prestigious Barnard College, Grace Gold had a promising future ahead of her. Popular and pretty, it was only natural that she would attend neighboring Columbia University’s graduation ceremony to celebrate her friends’ successes. After a happy day of celebrations, she headed home to her apartment at 116th and Broadway. Just a block away on 115th Street, however, a crumbling exterior building façade loosened just as she happened to walk by. A chunk of the masonry finally gave in and fell, directly onto Grace. She was crushed to death.
The tragic and untimely death of Grace Gold shocked and outraged New Yorkers. Her death, many reasoned, could have been prevented if the clearly crumbling building façade had been inspected and the owners had kept it in good repair. If a freak accident like that could happen to Grace, it could happen to anyone. In response, the government passed the first of the building inspection laws—Local Law 10 of 1980. Under this law, the street-facing facades of every building seven stories and taller must be inspected every five years by a licensed architect or engineer. Any hazardous conditions found had to be corrected.
Although Local Law 10 was a good step in the right direction, a rash of similar incidents in 1997 proved it wasn’t enough. Bricks rained from a shoddily built Madison Avenue building onto passerby below. A piece of paparet tumbled from the Church of Scientology building. Slabs of ornamental stone shattered on the sidewalk from the high walls of the Belleclaire Hotel. Clearly, buildings in New York still weren’t safe, and inspections weren’t thorough enough. Following these events, the Giuliani administration pushed forth Local Law 11, which set much stricter requirements and more thorough inspections.
Previously, only building exteriors that faced the street were subject to inspection, but now all four sides of the building must pass. Instead of simply checking building exteriors from afar with binoculars, inspectors now must do “hands-on” inspections via scaffolds of decorations and wall pieces (for instance, gargoyles) projecting more than six inches out from the face of a wall. Finally, a building no longer simply fails or passes an inspection, either; buildings are classified as “safe,” “unsafe,” or “safe with a repair and maintenance program.” The latter ensures that buildings that are currently safe but may not be by the time of the next inspection are addressed preemptively.
With more than 12,000 buildings subject to Local Law 11, the new requirements were—and are—costly. However, it seems to be doing the trick. Aside from a minor alteration in 2007 granting “unsafe” building owners more time to make repairs, the law has largely remained unchanged. New Yorkers can breathe easy knowing they don’t have to fear of building chunks raining from below. The only people on the streets looking up are, thankfully, the tourists.