Gotham Gazette

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Cleaning Up an Agency and an Accident

Photo from AllWaysNY
Photo courtesy of

In my East Side and midtown Manhattan district you will find giant cranes and new high-rise buildings on nearly a third of the densely populated blocks -- the same blocks that experienced the tragic crane accident last week that claimed seven lives and left scores injured and displaced from their homes. Since then, all of the questions from people in my community have been about how an accident of this nature could happen; what we need to do to protect workers and residents; and why the frequency of these incidents seem to be escalating. Of course, we have now learned that whatever technically caused the crane to topple, we cannot rely on the Department of Building's system of inspection. At least one of their inspectors admitted he didn't show up for the inspection.

The Problem

Our city's approach to construction approvals and safety has been fundamentally flawed since changes were enacted by the Giuliani administration. Because of a lack of enforcement by the Department of Buildings, along with an extremely hot real estate market, many developers and their contractors ignore safety requirements, disregard building codes and violate zoning laws.

For too many years, the city has under staffed agencies charged with oversight, has had an ineffective penalty and deterrence model, and has allowed the development and construction industry to police itself.

People complain that government is too often reactive, not proactive, and that only after crises are real solutions proposed. Fair enough. I say there have been too many of these types of accidents, and I don't accept the "freak accident" excuse.

Either our inspection and safety protocols are wrong or the people charged with carrying them out have failed at their jobs (as was clearly the case here!) -- or both. There must be changes from the top down, starting with the resignation of the Department of Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster. The department does not have a centralized database for tracking or correlating information between stop work orders, violations and enforcement outcomes.

A 2003 city comptroller's audit found that 67 percent of sampled construction plans that were submitted to the department through self-certification had errors. By 2007, nearly 50 percent were in error. New York City's Department of Buildings initiated self-certification in 1995 to help ease a permit backlog. The practice allows architects and engineers to confirm that their plans comply applicable laws, rather than submit plans to department inspectors. It accounted for nearly half the 6,000 new building permits issued in 2006 and a similar number in 2007.

Some State Solutions

Since the city has been resistant to mandating stricter safety standards, and the department isn't moving forward on its own, there is a role for the state to play. Here are just some of the bills currently in the Senate and/or Assembly:

  • One of the biggest problems facing safe development today is the department's self-certification process. While I don't question the fact that the majority of architects and engineers are professionals who would not make false certifications, the city's agency charged with ensuring the public's safety cannot continue to abdicate its responsibility to others. The Department of Buildings must immediately end self-certification for the construction of all high-rise skyscrapers. Clearly these projects are radically more complex and risky than the building of a single family home or smaller buildings.

  • Increase penalties and professional sanctions for those who show patterns of violating regulations, safety standards and zoning laws. Remember the proverb "fool me twice..."

  • Require the department re-inspect and abate hazardous violations and significantly increase the oversight of development sites, prioritizing the frequency of inspections to those sites with histories of violations.

  • Mandate clear lines of responsibility for developers, contractors and their subcontractors. In the case of the crane collapse March 8, the developer says that he is not responsible because he contracted out the construction, and they in turn subcontracted to a crane company. The current guidelines are not nearly clear enough, leading to complex litigation with each incident that occurs.

    New legislation can provide more tools to our agencies. However, if laws are not enforced, they are not worth the paper we wrote them on. The city needs to enforce the laws that are on the books and provide the department with the resources it needs to conduct full inspections, prioritizing them by size of project and the risks involved.

    Photo courtesy of Maycon Beal
    Photo courtesy of Maycon Beal

    Raising the City's Standards

    Reports indicate that the cause of the crane collapse may be a damaged or frayed strap used to stabilize it, which could not bear the load. While building department records showed that the site, including the crane, had been inspected by the department shortly before the accident, we have since learned that at least some of those inspections did not take place.

    This chain of events perfectly exemplifies the need for better enforcement and oversight by the Department of Buildings. City officials were called in to inspect complaints on the site. At least one inspector failed to show up, but submitted reports that indicated everything was fine. Assuming others did show up as required, did they know what to look for? Did they see the problems? Did they crosscheck resolution of the 14 outstanding safety violations at the site while they were there that day? As Robert Guskind of the website Gowanus Lounge says, even if the department "functioned like a well-oiled machine that rigorously enforced city regulations, its inspectors are still overwhelmed by the level of construction." I agree.

    In many instances, the city's response to violations has been something like: "It's already done so there is nothing we can do." In the case of most violations issued, the developer goes before the Environmental Control Board. However, the board often won't hear complaints for months and the developer can easily get hearings postponed. When cases are finally heard, the fines are usually so small that they are considered "the cost of doing business."When scofflaws laugh about petty cash penalties, we know we have a problem. Fines need to be enforced in a timely way, and dramatically increased to adequately serve as a deterrent.

    The Department's Role

    In December, the Daily News reported that an architect of 32 sites received "an unusual stipulation, promising not to report the Ă«alleged misdeeds to any regulatory agency,' including one that could revoke his license," by the department commissioner. She should have stepped down from her position then. If the city is serious about addressing these concerns, step one would be for her to step down now.

    In another instance, a Brooklyn developer was found to have 48 violations from one development -- the same development he certified at 100 percent compliance. The developer of the site of the crane accident had 14 violations. Though none were deemed extremely serious, there should be a clearly defined timeline during which developers must bring their sites up to code or be forced to stop their work. This must occur within hours, or at most days, not months or years.

    New York should not accept a model of construction safety that relies on a neighbor seeing something wrong and reporting it. Though residents are encouraged to report problems, the role of the department should be to prevent problems beforehand. It must be on the scene even before complaints are reported, and when complaints do come in, it needs to take them seriously and address them fully. Despite the department's mission to "ensure the safe and lawful use of over 950,000 buildings and properties by enforcing the City's Building Code, Electrical Code, Zoning Resolution, New York State Labor Law and New York State Multiple Dwelling Law," the agency does not seem to fully understand its role in actually ensuring "safe and lawful" sites. And increased funding is not the silver bullet.

    If the city is unable to provide more money for staffing, then the cost of permits must be raised accordingly to fund new inspectors and a faster penalty system. A study conducted by then-Assembly member (now borough president) Scott Stringer in 2002 revealed that the city could generate more than $10 million a year to hire additional inspectors by actually collecting the fines the Environmental Control Board issues each year.

    The lack of enforcement, oversight and accountability within the Department of Buildings allows those developers and construction firms, who put profit before the safety of the public and their workers, to shirk city and state laws and codes.

    Liz Krueger, a Democrat, is a state senator from Manhattan's East Side. 

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