City Hall Ignored the Hazards of the Building Boom

After a Bloomberg-engineered veto, a Brooklyn assemblyman digs in for building reforms

"You can get massive involvement from politicians and residents and stop rogue projects," said Brennan. "But there is no independent legal process that triggers compulsory better performance from builders."

As chairman of the assembly's Committee on Cities, Brennan held hearings in September 2006 to put a spotlight on the department's enforcement shortfall. So many people wanted to testify that the hearings had to be extended an extra day. First to speak was Buildings Commissioner Lancaster, who lamented that she'd inherited "a neglected agency that was in complete disarray," where "one-third of staff positions were vacant and computers crashed daily." Agency morale "was at an all-time low," she said, and "documents and files were unaccounted for."

Lancaster went on to describe the yeoman effort her agency has made to make information available on the Web and to redo the city's building code. But her astonishingly frank description of the department she walked into on Day One somehow went unreported at the time, even though Bloomberg has refrained from speaking ill of his predecessor's regime.

Brooklyn's Brennan: nailing the city's "willful neglect"
Staci Schwartz
Brooklyn's Brennan: nailing the city's "willful neglect"

More disturbing was the testimony of witnesses who described desperate, hand-to-hand combat with lawless builders. A Williamsburg woman described how her home had been showered with asbestos, her water pipes burst, and her electric lines illegally tapped. A homeowner in Greenpoint told how her home's foundation had been cracked so badly thanks to plans drawn up by a notorious architect that her family, including her 83-year-old mother, had to vacate.

Those tales and others like them are the residue of willful neglect, said Brennan. "For years, the Bloomberg administration just didn't think that enforcement of the law was a priority," he said. "They were too ecstatic that there was so much construction going on that they couldn't acknowledge that a lot of it was dangerous."

Brennan is one of those rare birds, a dogged lawmaker who rarely seeks the limelight but who does his own deep excavating when presented with a problem. After the hearings, he won passage of two new laws, one to curb rogue architects, and another compelling builders to shore up adjacent properties during excavation. The 60-day reinspection bill for hazardous violations passed the legislature overwhelmingly before the governor's veto. He's reintroduced the bill this session. Buildings-department officials, clearly shaken by last month's harrowing accident, this time are not immediately turning thumbs down.

"Clearly, the city is amenable to ways in which the violation process can be changed," said an agency spokesperson.

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