NYC Diaries Part II
- Construction -
Building out a space, be it office, home or restaurant may seem exciting in theory, but the looming unreliability and unpredictability of the people and process involved can drive most of us crazy. I had learnt some tough lessons with construction while building out both Indika locations. During the build out for Houston Pondicheri, halfway through the construction, I had to oust a working partner that went rogue, gather my resources and come up with a new name. Next put on a hard hat, teach myself how to read construction drawings and become the general contractor of sorts to get the job done. Yet, strangely enough none of this prepared me for what was about to come in New York.
We signed our lease December 2014 and were off to what appeared to be a promising start. While the designers were working on interior details, the architect and engineer started drawing up plans & applied for permits. Fidel the contractor gathered his team early February to start the partial demolition. Doing demolition on a space this decrepit technically required a permit but in real time should have been an easy first step. Hoping to create a good work environment, we invited our landlords to meet the construction team but for reasons we could not understand, the principal Glen was highly dismissive towards them. Was this cultural or racial? Would they have paid more attention if they had worn expensive suits and used better grammar? After that meeting, we were reduced to dealing with the landlord’s henchmen, whose only method of communication was a snarl or a bark. Within an hour of demolition, our construction team was soundly booted out with profane expletives and ordered not to return until they had a permit.
Startled but undeterred by the strong reaction, Fidel’s team was back in a couple of days permit in hand. Each of those 10-12 days of demolition, they were subjected to soul crushing yelling by Benjamin, another henchman for reasons too trivial to list. Fidel’s fast talking bravado slightly shaken, he decided to hire a new project manager. Entered Gianna, a youngish attractive NYU grad with plenty of experience in construction management. Gianna appeared promising, showing up at the site every morning with recaps and progress maps. In the meanwhile, I was flying in and out of New York every two weeks wondering why there was such discord between my landlord and construction team. Being the eternal optimist, I called my landlord Glen for a friendly chat and his secretary responded with ‘He don’t have time to talk to you’. We are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars improving their building…but Glen doesn’t have time to talk to me? A bucket of cold water had splashed on my head. The honeymoon was definitely over.
Moving onto the next challenge in our construction timeline – ventilation. How and where to vent a space for kitchen hoods or air-conditioning is one the most crucial decisions for a building this size. In initial quick chats with the landlord, we had loosely agreed to place the large air conditioning units by the narrow openings at the back of the building. If I could do this over, I would have drawn my own blood to get this firmly in writing. At a subsequent meeting with our design team, Benjamin told us that the a/c units were going to have to go the roof, no choice. The units at the back of the building would just ‘ruin the view from the second floor back windows’. Wait, WHAT? I knew this would spell disaster in time and money so I protested, halted the meeting and demanded an explanation. Benjamin coldly told me to check the lease and walked away.
The next morning I called my lawyer who explained that the lease, brilliantly honed over decades to benefit the landlord, did have a convenient clause for them to make reasonable demands due to building and city constrictions. My heart sank, I was aghast. Was this a reasonable demand? Building an external vent in Manhattan was going to take months to build and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention the 20 permits we would need and 50K alone to shut down 27th street and hire a crane to life the massive unit up 12 floors. Would they share the cost? Hell no, I was told. Why did we have to do it? By this time, I had understood the immense value of a good lawyer and had hired a noteworthy one to cross check the lease. But even he shook his head, told me I had picked a tough as nails landlord as he had warned me earlier and to just get on with it. What was going to be a fairly straightforward construction job just turned immensely complicated. And our contracted timeline for completion with Fidel was now in disarray.
While the project languished waiting for the updated drawings to be completed and permitted, I suspected that a romance was brewing between Fidel and Gianna. Back in Houston, Abel sensed my anxiety and offered to move to New York temporarily to help move the project forward. Being an electrical engineer who had been around construction jobs his whole life, I knew he would be able to help but knowing how nightmarish the situation had become reluctantly I agreed. By now, there was an all out war between my landlords who wanted to monitor each step of Fidel’s team who in turn wanted to defy them at every turn and cut corners where they could. They also had many city inspectors on the take to approve shoddy jobs, the consequences of this now beginning to worry me.
That summer in June, Abel moved to New York and for the next year, spent all day each day holed into a cold drafty area under the stairs studying the drawings egging the project forward. He tried everything from buying lunch for the workers to physically helping them on the job. Fidel was nowhere to be found, seldom answered his phone and Gianna had Fred in her back pocket so she showed up when she pleased, explained only what she wanted to and the project moved in slow motion. If Abel or I asked too many detailed questions, she disappeared for days on end. I came in and out of the city as I watched his anxiety build up. After Thanksgiving that year, Fidel and Gianna vanished for 3 weeks, left the country and she returned visibly pregnant. At that point fraught with frustration, we considered firing Fidel and hiring a new contractor to finish the job but this would have guaranteed even more delays. I grit my teeth and moved on to get the job done.
At the beginning of 2016, as our air conditioning contractor Ahmed was getting ready to install the steel support for the roof top unit, Benjamin decided to disallow the use of the newly finished elevator for fear of damage. With the freight elevator still under repair, Ahmed and his men were forced to haul dozens of pieces of heavy steel twelve floors up by foot to and I will never forget the look on their faces nor Abel’s furious anger at how they were being treated. In Ahmed’s words ‘We are being treated worse than animals’. Not willing to dig into what the real issue was, I bit my tongue and looked the other way. It was not my proudest moment.
And to complicate things even more, the grossly understaffed Landmark association had to approve the angle at which the units would be viewed from the surrounding streets. After incessant requests and many trips to their offices, three long weeks later they showed up and told us to change some of the angles. Finally, by late spring 2016, the air conditioning had been put into place and the construction was close to wrapping up.
But we still had a dozen or so more permits to sign off on before we could receive our certificate of occupancy. This took another two months, endless calls to FDNY for fire inspections, Con Edison to connect gas, hours and days at the city’s permitting offices chasing one inspector after another. I befriended one beaurocrat at the department of buildings who loved to talk about himself and his brother that moved to India to become a yogi and I would sit there listening to his endless tales to get a paper signed. The final inspection was called June 2016 and Gianna sheepishly arrived baby in tow. After a few revisions, we finally received a temporary certificate of occupancy early July. We were finally ready to open and I could not wait to get that kitchen going!
In reflection, there were many things that went haywire but we did get it done. And many of the construction stories swirling around us were much worse. Halfway through their build out, the big American restaurant across the street had their construction crew walk off the job. They had to hire a new crew, apply for new permitting with a year’s delay. And this was their fifth location in New York! Another place down the road had their landlord sell the property within months of opening putting their lease in jeopardy. Some restaurants, we were told took over 2-3 years to complete. All in all, we had successfully managed to build the restaurant but little did we know that our real troubles were yet to begin.
Until next time,