Issue of the Week

Department of Buildings

by Rebecca Webber

18 February 02

Each day, thousands of New Yorkers are protected from the dangers of overhead construction work by "sidewalk bridges," which shelter pedestrians and re-route foot traffic at construction sites. One large builder of such bridges, Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting, has about 100 up at any given time, each requiring a permit from the city's Department of Buildings.

But on one dark day every year, in accordance with building laws, all of Regional's sidewalk bridge permits expire. And the agony begins.

"You must appear in person to renew the permits," explains Michael Mazzucca, Regional's president, "and the city will only renew four at a time."

So the company hires "expediters" to endure long waits at the Department of Buildings, renewing four permits, then returning to the back of the line, and renewing four more, and going to the back of the line, and renewing four more -- until all 100 are done. It can take upwards of a month and costs the company many thousands of dollars.

"The city fee for a permit might be $100," says Mazzucca. "We pay $500 because of the expediter. And we have no choice. The system is just impossible to deal with and the city will not help, no matter how many times you go there, no matter who you ask."

Despite its integral role in the construction process, New York City's Department of Buildings inspires little confidence from builders -- or from anybody else. The agency lacks both the manpower and the technology to handle the convoluted permit and inspection process for all of the city's construction projects. Their failures encourage corruption, spur higher construction costs, and compromise public safety.

Now, as the Department of Buildings becomes involved in the rebuilding efforts in lower Manhattan, many are wondering how the agency will handle the intense new activity, considering its poor track record with everyday tasks like permit renewals.

Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association, which represents 1500 building contractors throughout the city, is not optimistic. And what is worse, he predicts, "with such a focus on redeveloping lower Manhattan, other projects will be pushed to the bottom of the pile."

SET UP TO FAIL

The official mission of the Department of Buildings is to oversee residential and commercial building construction throughout the five boroughs, enforcing the city's building code. It issues permits, performs inspections, licenses tradespeople, and enforces laws pertaining to zoning, the electrical code, energy, safety, and labor. It handles tens of thousands of construction projects each year -- some of which build from the ground up, but most of which alter existing structures. All this is done by just 700 employees.

The department has been around since 1892, but recently, the agency has had trouble retaining its management. Acting commissioners have run the agency since Gaston Silva departed in 1999. And the Bloomberg administration has not yet decided how to fill the top spot. Rumor has it that no one wants the job.

"In some respects, it is set up to fail," says Paul Fernandes, chief of staff of New York City's Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents all of the construction trade unions. "It doesn't have anywhere close to the staff it needs to enforce the building code."

The building code itself is a problem. "A lot of what we do in New York City is in the dark ages in terms of construction technology," says Joe Weisbord, coordinator of Housing First!, an alliance of organizations committed to stimulating investment in housing.

The day-to-day operations of the buildings department are an even bigger problem because both staff and customers must adhere to cumbersome, often antediluvian, regulations. "It clearly should be more of a customer service approach," says Weisbord, "that does not take a lot of time."

THREAT TO SAFETY

Though ensuring public safety is part of the building department's core mission, construction accidents reveal its failures.

Seven construction workers died, one of them 17 years old, when a scaffolding collapsed last October on a site near Union Square. The accident is still under investigation, but experts say that such incidents usually result from flagrant violations of building laws.

"Contractors who are not really qualified to do the work will hire workers who are not trained or skilled in what they need to do -- often on jobs that have significant dangers associated with them," explains Fernandes, the union official. "It's not just an economic impact but a safety impact. If the scaffold collapse had been over the sidewalk instead of in a courtyard, there could have been 25 civilians killed."

But the agency doesn't have the manpower to inspect every project. Last year, 5,114 buildings were built from the ground up, while 81,421 existing structures got alterations. The city employed just 230 inspectors, who could only keep tabs on the most pressing projects.

"The bigger developers and owners tend to play by the rules," says Fernandes. "It's the smaller ones who are more apt to cheat, because they bet that they won't get inspected since they are so small. That's where a lot of the accidents have occurred."

About 75 construction workers in the New York metropolitan area died from workplace injuries in 1999, almost a third of all the workplace fatalities in New York, though the construction industry employs only about four percent of the city's workforce. (See the Gotham Gazette's coverage of workplace accidents and their disparate effect on immigrant workers.)

COSTLY DELAYS

Construction work moves in distinct phases -- such as pouring the foundation, building the superstructure, installing plumbing and wiring, and completing carpentry and painting. The different teams of workers and tradesmen must be carefully coordinated over the length of the project and kept in sync with the necessary permits and inspections from the buildings department. Delays can bankrupt builders.

"You want to move on to a next phase of your construction and you need an inspection, you can't have a crew sitting around waiting for a week doing nothing and you're paying them," said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, the industry's trade association.

But the buildings department has not always operated with this urgency in mind.

"Without the cooperation of the buildings department you can't do anything," says Spinola. "And there have been significant delays because of a lack of manpower and because people have been unavailable or unwilling to look at the facts and make a decision."

To hurry the agency along, some have been known to grease palms.

CORRUPTION

Over the past decade, employees of the Department of Buildings have been embroiled in a string of corruption scandals in which personnel allegedly accepted "gifts" in exchange for expediting permits and inspections. In September of 2000, the Manhattan District Attorney indicted eight department employees on such charges. The District Attorney alleged that the city workers had accepted free trips, meals, and tickets to sports events from a corrupt, private buildings consultant.

"Extortion, bid-rigging, bribery, and other illegal practices are pervasive in the construction industry," reported a 1999 city-commissioned study on the cost of residential construction in New York City. Along with the scandals at the Department of Buildings, "these illegal practices often take place because organized crime has infiltrated labor unions and construction companies," the report said.

Organized crime families have controlled various pieces of New York City's construction industry -- including drywall services, plumbing cartels, and union labor -- over much of the twentieth century, according to James Jacobs, Coleen Friel and Robert Radick in Gotham Unbound: How New York City Was Liberated from Organized Crime. While authorities have attempted to ferret it out of the construction industry, organized crime still exists.

HIGH COST OF CONSTRUCTION

Corruption on every level adds to the already high cost of construction in New York City, which has the highest residential construction costs in the nation. Outdated regulations and excessive costs for labor and materials also contribute to the differences that emerged when construction costs in New York were compared to those of similar projects in other cities.

For example, the 1999 report said, bricklayers in New York City earn a base hourly wage and fringe-benefit rate of $46.64 per hour, 42 percent more than bricklayers in Los Angeles, and 155 percent more than those in Dallas.

Of course, the costs eventually are passed on to buyers and renters.

DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT

Like many mayors before him, Rudolph Giuliani wanted to deal with some of the problems that plague the construction industry. In September of 2000, shortly after the corruption scandal in the buildings department, he appointed a task force to examine the agency and make recommendations for its improvement. It was the latest in a long string of such task forces.

Giuliani's task force submitted its diagnosis in April 2001. It called the department "an antiquated, overly bureaucratic institution in need of a well-defined mission, stronger leadership and additional resources."

The task force issued six recommendations for improvements. They included things like streamlining the permitting process, instituting anti-corruption measures, and implementing technological innovations.

At the time, the department's acting commissioner, Satish Babbar said, "The department is ready, willing and able to implement these recommendations, and we believe that the department can accomplish major reform by the end of this year."

By the time Giuliani passed the reins to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the department had indeed made some improvements in line with the task force's recommendations. The agency expanded its hours and upgraded its website to include policy and procedures notices and the entire building code.

"This was all to address criticism that the process was too cumbersome," says Ilyse Fink, director of communications for the Department of Buildings.

It also streamlined permit renewals to deal with its backlog, although the tedious process for sidewalk bridges, for example, has not changed. To deal with alleged corruption among its staff, the agency instituted stricter hiring standards and now requires ethics training. It also expanded its investigations unit which scrutinizes the internal staff as well as those licensed by the department.

Corruption has never been about construction safety issues, Fink pointed out, explaining that building inspectors were never paid to ignore safety problems.

"It's more that time is money and in construction the time is worth a lot," she said. "We have very strict rules about taking gifts or gratuities. Part of changing the process is to streamline to eliminate the incentive -- to speed the process so you don't have that kind of temptation anymore."

WAITING FOR THE FUTURE

The Department of Buildings says it has received positive feedback on the changes it has made, though construction insiders say they haven't noticed the improvements. They still await the appointment of a new Department of Buildings commissioner who will enact sweeping changes. Or so they hope.

The new commissioner's job will be daunting, as the Department of Buildings, like most other city agencies, has been called upon by Mayor Bloomberg to cut its budget by 20 percent. Though it pulls in about $85 million in revenue from permit fees and fines, and uses just $49 million for its operating expenses, about 8 to 10 million dollars will be cut from the buildings department's current budget.

Everyone understands that money is tight.

"The challenge we'll have as a city is how will we continue the economic development engine moving in an appropriate fashion given the reduced resources that the Building's Department has," notes Coletti of the building contractors association. "I think the answers to those questions have to be very different from the solutions recommended by the task force."

All agree the department should upgrade its technology to allow builders to file paperwork online. "You need to be able to conduct your business electronically. If you're not going to provide the staff to do it, you need some electronic system," says Fernandes, the union official. "It's just tedious to have to fill out paperwork like it's 1975."

As for the flouting of construction laws, instead of simply adding more inspectors to the payroll, "I think we need to give serious consideration to strengthening the penalties," says Coletti. "There has to be a strong financial risk if you're not complying with the law. It's almost a spin on quality of life: If you stop the smaller crime, you prevent the bigger one."

Now, the Department of Buildings turns it attention towards the rebuilding of downtown. Though it is not yet known which of the World Trade Center projects will be overseen by the city agency, and which by the Port Authority, officials at the Department of Buildings say they are now awaiting the filing of plans for the first of the projects, the 7 World Trade Center site.

When it comes to activity connected to Ground Zero, New Yorkers involved in construction have had some cause for optimism. The cleanup job at Ground Zero was, according to newspaper accounts, something of a "construction miracle," as a result of oversight to prevent corruption, self-policing, unprecedented flexibility of the unions, and the government's willingness to expedite the cleanup.

Of course, the Department of Buildings had almost nothing to do with that.

###

Visit the Issue of the Week archives.
Tell us what you think about this issue. Write a letter to the editor.