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Building security is a balancing act

High rise buildings  are the poster children for vulnerability in the post-9//11 world.  Thursday’s early morning scare, when two low-powered, hand-made grenades blew up outside a building housing the British consulate, merely served to underscore that image.
Bomb Explodes Outside British Consulat in New York City
Police gather outside of the building that houses the British Consulate after a bomb went off outside the building early Thursday.  Spencer Platt / Getty Images
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High-rise buildings in Midtown Manhattan are the poster children for vulnerability in the post-Sept. 11 world. Thursday’s early morning scare, when two low-powered, hand-made grenades blew up outside a building on Third Avenue housing the British Consulate, merely served to underscore that image.

The explosion was a reminder that there is no room for complacency. Thursday’s blast “was a sort of a wake-up call,” said MSNBC terrorism analyst Joe Cantemessa, a former FBI agent who investigated the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. “And it’s a reminder to remain vigilant.”

Housing offices, hotels and residences, these buildings are so difficult to defend against acts of terrorism that the FBI calls them “soft targets.”  And though much of the real estate industry has moved aggressively to upgrade security after 9/11, many landlords are reluctant to  accept responsibility for creating a safe and secure environment out of fear of legal liabilities, while tenants weigh the effects of too much security on foot traffic coming into their business.

No business that depends on foot traffic wants to rent in a building that feels like a fortress, says Ann Planning, a real estate lawyer and partner with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.  “They want people to feel safe and secure there, but they don’t want them to feel like they are walking into the CIA or the FBI. where there’s both the inconvenience of signing in and walking through monitors,” she said.

The real estate industry formed its own “information and sharing center,” or ISAC, to facilitate information exchange on possible terrorist activities with agencies in the federal government. ISAC operates on the same principles as centers set up by the energy, telecommunications and financial industries.

The hotel industry also has taken security issues to heart, says Josh Romanow, a lawyer and travel security expert with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.  “This is a service industry we’re talking about, and the ultimate concern is the comfort and safety of the hotel guests,” Romanow said.   Hotels are beefing up security, using a variety of personnel and high-tech surveillance methods, yet doing it in a way that doesn’t make “guests feel like they’re staying in a fortress,” he said.  “It’s a very delicate balancing act.”

One hand or the other
There are no federal security guidelines that commercial buildings must adhere to.  However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has published a reference manual on how to mitigate potential terrorist attacks against buildings. 

Still, owners and landlords often have different security requirements and differing levels of willingness to take responsibility for ensuring a secure environment, despite or perhaps, because of the events of 9/11.

A Government Accountability Office report on building security, released in 2002, noted that one of the big hurdles faced by government agencies leasing space in privately owned commercial buildings was “difficulty getting the lessor to allow security countermeasures in buildings not fully occupied by federal employees.” The primary reason for this reluctance to upgrade security?  “[T]he lessor does not want to inconvenience the private tenants,” the report says.

In addition, a high-profile tenant, such as the diplomatic corps of a foreign country, may have specific security demands it needs met.  In such instances, the landlord may agree to installing security upgrades “but from a landlord’s perspective, they don’t want to assume the legal risk or liability” if the security measures don’t thwart a terrorist act, said Planning. For example, a tenant may want extra security cameras installed, but in these cases, the landlord is likely to build in a clause that absolves him or her from any guarantee that the cameras will catch the bad guys or that the cameras will even be monitored. 

Planning put it more bluntly:  “Landlords are reluctant to specifically, in writing, agree to be responsible for security.”

And sometimes security is just a matter of classification. 

Buildings are assigned a “class” A through C.  Class “A” buildings are the top of the heap; the kind of building you’d associate with high-priced law firms, powerful lobbying organizations, ritzy hotels and the British Consulate. 

“Size doesn’t really matter, nor does location,” Planning said. “You can have a class A building outside of the downtown areas.”  It’s the marble and glitz and spit and polish and level of security and amenities that sets a class “A” building apart from a B or a C, Planning said.

And when a landlord does open up the checkbook for security improvements, those costs are usually passed on to the tenant in some form, said Planning, “especially where a tenant will ask for an upgrade.”  Moving into a class A building, tenants aren’t directly billed for security measures, she said, “but your rent will likely be higher reflecting the fact that it was more expensive to build the building and operate the building” with increased security.

Gary Green, CEO of Classic Security, a New York-based firm that provides security guard services, said the level of security that people are buying now has leveled off or diminished. “People are starting to buy more systems, but what we’re seeing is that the people that own buildings that could be considered terrorist targets, are definitely keeping up with security,” Green said, “but the facilities on the side streets [of New York], that don’t see themselves as targets, are definitely exhibiting what I call ‘terrorism impatience.’ In other words, since nothing’s happened then they are kind of going back to the mindset they had before [9/11],” Green said.

“When it comes to security, it seems that for some it’s more important to cut costs than it is to provide the right security.”