Construction permit middlemen face new hurdle to getting the job

Just after 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning Steve Ruotolo, 57, had been standing outside the Department of Building’s Manhattan Borough Office for several hours. He carried a large olive-green tote bag stuffed with rolls of building plans and stacks of associated forms. Though he expected a stressful day, he was in good spirits.

“It’s not bad — the weather’s still nice,” he reasoned. “You gotta be out here in Februrary. It’s horrible.”

One of dozens of expeditors in line outside the Department of buildings – this one since 4:58 that morning. Photo: Gianna Palmer

For the past 35 years Ruotolo has worked as an expeditor, one of hundreds of largely unseen middlemen of New York City construction, relied on by everyone from corporate architects to brownstone remodelers to navigate the daunting process of getting New York City building permits approved.

Jerry Salama, principal of the Janus Property Company, said it’s up to expeditors to demonstrate that the plans comply with building codes. “The expeditors are the experts on the processes,” he said.

Expert though he may be, Ruotolo spends much of his day waiting: first to get inside the building, then for appointments with Department of Buildings employees. He spends his day navigating a bureaucratic maze, with every move carefully timed.

“Today I was here at 4:40,” he said. “Yesterday, 4:30.”

Ruotolo waits beside his friend and fellow expeditor, Steve Rodriguez, 57, who was the first to arrive at 4:00 a.m. Dozens of people —  along with a row of briefcases and backpacks, marking saved spots — line up behind Ruotolo and Rodriguez, so many that the line snakes around the corner of the stately Municipal Building and spills onto the next block.

Currently, the formal requirements for becoming an expeditor are minimal. Prospective “filing representatives” — the Department of Buildings’ official name for expeditors — need only complete a bit of paper work and an online code of conduct tutorial. Expeditors say that as it stands, they learn on the job. It’s steep learning curve, and mistakes are time consuming.

Expeditors line out outside the Department of Buildings. Photo: Gianna Palmer

“One wrong ‘X’ in your filing and you’re completely screwed,” said Sandy Shelonchik, an expeditor for the last 9 years.

Monica Beaudrean, a part-time expeditor with 10 years of experience, said there’s no formal training available. “You just keep coming every day,” she said. “Trial and error.”

This may soon change. On Thursday morning, the Department of Buildings will hold a public hearing outlining a set of proposed changes aimed at creating training, education, experience and continuing education requirements for expeditors. The proposed changes would create two classes of expeditors. Class 1 would be qualified to simply submit plans. The more highly trained Class 2 would be permitted to interact with plan examiners and technical staff during meetings to review documents.

Under the proposed rules, both classes would have to take training courses in New York City zoning and on the Building and Energy Conservation codes.

The proposed requirements for Class 2 are stringent: an expeditor would need either a four-year architecture or engineering degree, or a four-year degree in another subject plus four years of expeditor experience and at least a 100 jobs under their belt. Expeditors with eight years of experience and at least 200 jobs wouldn’t be required to have a degree.

In its announcement of the hearing, the Department stated that creating these two classes will “ensure that only qualified [expeditors] appear before plan examiners and other technical staff to address objections,” and sometimes expeditors who present plans are “not qualified or prepared.”

The Department of Buildings did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Many expeditors bristle at the idea that the city needs to get in their business, even as they say they understand the reasoning behind the proposed rules. A common refrain among expeditors is that Department of Buildings itself is to blame for the vast majority of delays and complications.

Salama said he wasn’t sure if the proposed rules would help address inefficiencies at the department or better prepare expeditors, but that the notion of having a minimum requirement for expeditors was appropriate.

“I think it’s perfectly okay for an agency to require that someone who is coming in to claim that plans to comply with code to have experience or training in the code,” Salama said, noting that decades ago, architects used to be the ones to meet with plan examiners.

Al Knoll, an architect in practice since 1961, usually doesn’t come face to face with Department of Buildings officials, but on Wednesday he stood near the back of the back of Wednesday’s long line of expeditors.

“I’ve never done this before,” he said, adding that he hadn’t expected there to be such a long line. Knoll had plans to meet up with an expeditor he had hired — a necessity, he said.

“Because it’s so convoluted and it’s so complex, it’s not practical for an architect to spend his time down here,” he said. “So I always have an expeditor.”

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