Last week, prosecutors filed criminal charges against Walter and Evan Blum, alleging that the father and son’s recklessness and dishonesty led to the collapse of a downtown antique warehouse that injured 11, forced dozens of neighbors to evacuate, and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in emergency services. The Blums have pleaded not guilty, and while the case will focus on their actions, it puts in the spotlight a Giuliani administration policy that has arguably paved the way for catastrophes like the one that turned the century-old brick building at East Houston Street and Second Avenue into a pile of rubble.
The policy is called self-certification. Rather than relying on a site visit from a Department of Buildings (DOB) inspector to ensure that alteration or construction plans are legal, self-certification allows licensed engineers and architects to sign off on their own plans. Giuliani instituted self-certification in 1994 as an antidote to the red tape that he said was choking developers. To combat the obvious conflicts inherent in self-policing, the penalty for filing false papers is license revocation. But such consequences are rare.
Collapses like the one at 14 Second Avenue are a more likely result. Owned by Walter Blum, 76, the building was used by his 47-year-old son Evan as an architectural remnants dealership called Irreplaceable Artifacts. Last week, a grand jury alleged that in the spring of 2000, workers demolished interior walls to accommodate plans for a restaurant, even though no DOB permits had been issued for the work. DOB was alerted to the renovations, and in May 2000, issued a stop-work order.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau says that on June 28, 2000, Walter Blum, an architect, submitted self-certified plans and applications to DOB, but they were “false and misleading,” misrepresenting the scope of the work and claiming that no structural changes would be made. On July 13, 2000, an exterior wall collapsed. The city determined that the building was dangerous and demolished it, scrapping much of Evan Blum’s impressive artifact collection.
“This building is the poster child for showing what’s wrong with self-certification,” says City Council member Kathryn Freed, whose district includes the site. “They were told to stop work and file plans, and then the plans they filed had absolutely nothing to do with the work they were doing.” More typically, says Lisa Kaplan, chair of Community Board 3, the pitfalls of self-certification are less dramatic, but insidious. “Usually by the time we find out about it, the damage is done,” says Kaplan. One of the most common misuses of self-certification is disguising major alterations. Many single-room occupancy hotels, for example, have been entirely converted for tourist use.
Evan Blum’s attorney, Martin Stolar, says his client is the victim because “he had a building which did not have to be knocked down knocked down by the city.” Bruce Maffeo, attorney for Walter Blum, declined to comment.
Walter Blum was not only the architect and landlord; he was also heavily involved in the proposed restaurant. In fact, “confusion” over his many roles halted an earlier restaurant plan at the site, a scheme whose demise may have lead to the building’s collapse, according to a lawsuit filed in July 2000 by a former Blum business partner.
Hollie Stillman, a restaurant designer, says in her suit that from 1998 until 2000, she and the Blums were working together to open the Artifacts Cafe, with celebrated chef John Tesar and an ambiance created with Blum’s museum-quality objects. But dissent broke out over design issues, and the Blums backed out of the plan, instead proceeding on their own. In an affidavit, Stillman says that the Blums “knew that if they filed the necessary application to do the construction with the Department of Buildings, I would find out about it. In their attempt to hide their actions, the defendants failed to do the necessary filing and obey” DOB rules. “As a result, the building collapsed while construction was going on.”
Stillman sued the Blums for $15 million, but most of her claims were struck down last month. She is appealing the case. “This could have been a dream project, and now look what happened,” says Stillman. “If we had only done this all together, it would have been done properly and this would never have happened. Now, nobody has anything.”
The Blums stand to lose even more. They face suits from neighbors and business associates who say they were harmed by the collapse. The criminal case could send both of them to jail for up to seven years. And while Evan Blum’s corporations have sued the city for about $445 million for various damages to his business, the city has counterclaimed and could compel Blum’s firms to reimburse taxpayer dollars spent on the collapse.
Evan Blum and the city have an acrimonious history. In a 1993 affidavit, city lawyers called him a “deadbeat” who “stiffed” them for more than $100,000 in rent for a downtown lot. But sour relations have not dulled Blum’s desire to partner with the city: He and a relative are bidding on more than 200,000 square feet of city-owned land in East Harlem, where he wants to build a “Harlem Bazaar,” which would include an auction house, antiques market, and venues for food and entertainment. The city has not yet selected a developer.