Community Groups Rally to ‘Renovate DOB!’ After Construction Accidents Kill 15


Plenty of New Yorkers find themselves anxiously peering toward the sky in the wake of this spring’s two high profile, deadly crane collapses that killed nine people on the Upper East Side. Now, a coalition of community groups wants to focus attention on the everyday construction dangers that lurk in neighborhoods across the city, and the enhanced role residents can play to help put a stop to them.

The group, Citizens for Buildings (Department) Reform, gathered with elected officials on the steps of City Hall on Thursday afternoon to call for increased community input and consultation as key ways to incorporate more safety into a citywide building boom that has already left 15 construction workers and bystanders dead in 2008.

“We feel that the administration really needs to engage the communities of New York when it does these things,” said Corey Bearak, president of the Queens Civic Congress, one of the organizers of the rally. He was referring to recent proposals by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, presented after a closed-door meeting with construction industry insiders, to improve oversight and conditions at work sites.

Citizens for Buildings (Department) Reform contends that the legislative package announced by Bloomberg in response to the second crane collapse on May 30, which killed two people, is inadequate to the herculean task of reforming the Department of Buildings, the troubled city agency tasked with ensuring that construction is done safely and in accordance with the city’s building and zoning codes.

“The proposed changes are a watered down version of Assemblymember James Brennan’s proposals for 2007,” said Raul Rothblatt, executive director of the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance, referencing the Brooklyn state legislator who last year proposed, among other improvements, that DOB should have to reinspect construction sites determined to contain hazardous violations within 60 days, and shut down the sites if the violation were not fixed. That bill passed the legislature overwhelmingly, but was vetoed by former Governor Eliot Spitzer.

In comparison, Citizens for Buildings (Department) Reform is calling for, among other recommendations, more stringent standards of inspection and compliance verification for Stop Work Order sites with documented violations; the end of self-certification, which expedites the overburdened permit approval process by putting faith in the professionalism of architects and engineers to submit error-free plans; and harnessing the expertise of community groups.

On the latter point, Rothblatt elaborated after the rally that, “We could be reaching out to the civic groups to help educate people and filter through some of the complaints about DOB and make it more efficient. We could have people from the DOB go to community boards. Bloomberg could sit down with us.”

The kinds of uncelebrated but significant problems that residents regularly report, particularly in more residential outer boroughs, include unfenced construction sites that attract children, damage to private property from nearby construction, nonfatal falls, and cave-ins.

“These sorts of accidents are not isolated in Manhattan,” said civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, a likely public advocate contender for 2009. “What we seem to not focus in on, and give very little attention to, is to the high toll the building boom is exacting in the Bronx, Staten Island, Queens and Brooklyn. This is a citywide issue.”

Beverly Corbin, the co-founder of United Neighbors of Brooklyn, recounted an unnerving scene she witnessed Thursday morning in Brooklyn on her way to the rally in Manhattan.

“I was coming down Livingston Street where there is a development being built. There was a scaffolding that was way far off from the building, and there was this gentleman that was jumping to pull it in,” she said.

Still, others suggested that it would take more than community input and consultation to fix DOB. They argue that the broken agency is in need of a full-scale renovation with measures exceeding a change in leadership, which occurred in April when Commissioner Patricia Lancaster was pulled off the job.

Queens Citycouncilman Tony Avella, who has made fighting the influence of the real estate industry a centerpiece of his announced mayoral bid, talked about the conflict of interest that exists because DOB is charged with promoting development, in addition to maintaining safety standards.

“You can’t have the watchdogs of the developers working with the developers at the same time,” he said. “That is absurd.”

Councilmember John Liu of Queens, meanwhile, harkened back to an old strategy in a new context.

“It’s time to apply the broken windows theory to the DOB,” he said. “And that is, it’s not just the big crane collapses that result in tragedies. It’s also the illegal conversions that we all report that get absolutely no action on them. Until that stops, the bigger problems will continue to happen, and people will continue to get hurt and die.”