City Hall Ignored the Hazards of the Building Boom

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

New York's development boom has had its own terrifying shock-and-awe effect on city residents, never more so than when an immense crane fell from the sky on a crowded East Side block last month, killing seven on its way down.

At the scene, Mayor Bloomberg claimed that his administration had been on top of things at the site. But it turned out that a few matters had gone amiss. Most alarmingly, a member of the elite crane-inspection squad had turned in a bogus report, never having stirred himself to visit the project. No one was the wiser until the crash prompted questions that apparently don't otherwise get asked.

Even before the crane collapse, the project had accumulated 11 separate violations classified as hazardous, all still outstanding. That was just business as usual, the mayor insisted. "Every large construction site has violations," he said, surveying the wreckage.

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

That attitude is par for the course at City Hall. Under a tough bill that the mayor persuaded Governor Spitzer to veto last year, his buildings department would have had to reinspect those hazardous violations within 60 days—and shut down the site if they hadn't already been remedied. Bloomberg insisted that the law was unnecessary and—at $4 million a year—too expensive.

There's no guarantee that the law would have saved lives on East 51st Street. But the idea behind it was to make the agency more aggressive—more watchdog than lapdog, according to Brooklyn assemblyman Jim Brennan, who crafted and introduced the bill. "There were four months of unsafe activities at the site where the buildings department failed to act," said Brennan. "This is just completely ineffectual oversight."

Since the crash, the buildings department has raced to strengthen some of its procedures. Last week, the agency announced that inspectors must be present when tower cranes are raised. Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster issued a carefully calibrated vow to shut down any crane "operating in an unsafe manner in violation of applicable requirements."

But we expect no less of city government when innocent citizens are slaughtered while sitting comfortably in their apartments. And while the crane horror adds a whole new dimension to the problem, this is hardly the first time the building surge of the past few years has prompted public fear and rage.

For all its economic benefits, the boom has turned vacant lots and demolition sites into battle zones across the city. The weapons of assault are backhoes, bulldozers, and piledrivers. And while many local elected officials have tried to respond to panicky constituents, the complaints have generally prompted little more than snickers at City Hall.

There, the dominant attitude remains the Doctoroff Doctrine—the policy espoused by ex–deputy mayor and still top Bloomberg economic adviser Daniel Doctoroff: The more building the better, and don't sweat the small stuff.

One of the places where that attitude is massively out of sync with the public interest is Brooklyn's Park Slope and its surrounding neighborhoods. There, developers launched such a torrent of new, often out-of-scale construction that residents demanded rezoning to curb the attack. The lucky ones got new protections, but those outside the boundaries simply suffered the consequences.

Brennan, who has represented the area for more than two decades, said constituent calls came day and night. "All of a sudden, there was this massive development pressure giving rise to community shock," he said. Calls told of excavations undermining adjacent properties, heavy equipment that made nearby buildings rock dangerously, and builders who brazenly ordered their crews past property lines.

"We'd call the buildings department, and they'd come either too late to catch them, or not at all," Brennan said.

Residents were also stunned to discover that some of the biggest projects were in violation of current zoning—but still had city approval. Such sleights-of-hand are allowed under the buildings department's notorious self-certification system, a method devised by the Giuliani administration to cope with an applications backlog.

The idea was that professional architects and engineers would never put their approval on plans not up to spec. The first time anyone studied the matter, a city comptroller's audit in 2003 found that 67 percent of self-certified plans contained significant mistakes. (Relax, it's gone down since: Last year it was just 50 percent.)

"Architects came in claiming that these big construction projects, where someone wanted to build a 10- or 11-story building, were approved," said Brennan. "We'd demand an audit, but it would take months to get one."

The same goes for hazardous work. Thanks to Spitzer's veto last year, builders slapped with violations are still allowed to keep working for another 90 to 120 days before the issue goes to a hearing.

Essentially, current buildings-department regulations create a race between aggrieved citizens and corner-cutting developers: Neighbors have to muster all their energy to stop illegal work, while builders try to outrun them, getting foundations in the ground and walls up before anyone throws a red flag. Then the developers' lawyers go to work, arguing that so much money has already been expended that civic decency should allow them to continue.

In one of the few local victories, residents of a block on 15th Street in south Park Slope challenged developers who had won approval for an 11-story condo tower—even though its plans violated city rules. Neighbors hired their own top-notch lawyer to beat the scoundrels at their own game. The cost: $150,000 in legal fees.

"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.

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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