Councilmember Jimmy Vacca sees something threatening his corner of the Bronx. Houses are torn down and bigger ones go up in their places. Calm neighborhoods turn noisy. Cars clog once quiet streets. The city's zoning laws are supposed to protect Throg's Neck against such overdevelopment, says Vacca, but City Hall has made it quite easy to get around them.
In the name of cutting red tape, city law currently allows architects and engineers to decide whether their own projects are in compliance with zoning regulations in many cases â€“ a practice known as self-certification. This practice is based on the reasoning that professionals can be trusted to comply with the law themselves, and that allowing them to sign off on their own projects increases the efficiency of development â€“ much needed in a city that is building itself up at the pace that New York is today.
But many members of the council complain that this privilege is regularly abused, and that violators are not punished. Vacca â€“ who calls the zoning book his "bible", and who has been referred to as both the "de facto Inspector General of the Buildings Department" and the " sheriff of zoning" â€“ is one of the most aggressive critics of such permissive policies. He refers to the self-certification as "the bane of the existence of those who are concerned about overdevelopment." People who have either misread regulations or intentionally ignore them regularly build projects that are larger than zoning laws allow for, or don't include required parking, he argues.
At its stated meeting on February 1st, the council voted on two bills introduced by Vacca. As the law is written now, even those architects and engineers who have been sanctioned for violations in the past are taken at their word when they say their projects comply with zoning regulations. The first (Intro 308-a) would prohibit those who are on probation by the state for previous violations from self-certifying projects.
The second bill (Intro 309-a) lays out punishments for those who falsely claim their projects are in compliance with zoning regulations, and requires the city to notify the state about violators, so that their past transgressions can be counted against them when they apply for renewals of state licenses.
The bills call for increased enforcement, but Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the cost, if any, would be "extraordinarily minimal," noting that the Department of Buildings' enforcement budget was increased last year. The department, which has a budget of about $90 million, reviews over 65,000 construction plans annually.
Both bills passed by votes of 47 â€“ 0. They must be signed by the mayor to become law.
The legislation is the latest in a series of proposals coming from a council task force examining the Department of Buildings. In November, the council passed several bills addressing illegal demolition. Members of the council also introduced three new bills regarding development and construction at last week's meeting.
One of those bills (Intro 521) called for the complete elimination of the self-certification process. Several council members called for such action on the floor as they voted for the bills at hand.
Self-certification started in the 1990s as a money saving move, essentially outsourcing the job of regulation of architects and engineers from a financially strained Department to the industry itself, said Councilmember James Oddo, who led the council task force. City officials should go back to doing this job themselves, he argued. In order to do so, Oddo believes that the Department of Buildings' budget should be increased. In the meantime, he suggested banning self-certification in places where zoning changes had been made recently.
But the Bloomberg administration and Council Speaker Christine Quinn oppose the complete elimination of self-certification, saying that it will stymie development.
"I think that right now we're putting the right level of structure and punishment into the process to weed out the bad operators but allow the good operators the appropriate amount of flexibility," said Quinn. "We don't want to slow down needed and appropriate development."
The council also voted unanimously to re-landmark several buildings on the Upper East Side in the block-long development City and Suburban Homes. The buildings were built at the turn of the 20th century, as an experiment to create a quality alternative to the squalid tenements of the Lower East Side. The Board of Estimate revoked their landmark status in 1990 as a result of lobbying by current MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow, who owned the buildings at the time. The move was part of a flurry of controversial late night decisions made by the board as it closed down â€“ a time that several council members referred to last week as its "going out of business sale."
"You don't get too many opportunities in government for do-overs, and that's what this is: a rare opportunity to right a wrong," said Jessica Lappin, chair of the subcommittee on landmarks. The buildings are in her district, and she led the council's push to have them landmarked again.
The council also voted to landmark the New York Cab Company Stables on the Upper West Side.
A HARLEM HERO HITS IT BIG
Before the meeting started, the council held the latest in the series of government ceremonies honoring Wesley Autrey, the man who jumped onto the subway tracks in Harlem and to save a stranger from an oncoming train. In the last several weeks, Autrey has been the guest of honor at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's State of the City address and President George Bush's nationally televised State of the Union speech. After the national television exposure, doesn't the presentation of a plague in front of a few dozen people seem anticlimactic? Councilmember Peter Vallone didn't think so.
"He has finally, finally hit the big time," Vallone said.