Volume 20, Number 51 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | MAY 2 - 8, 2008

Talking Point

Buildings Department is unsafe at any height

By Deborah J. Glick

Question: How do you change a flat tire on a car going 60 m.p.h.? Answer: If you are the Bloomberg administration, you don’t.

Six years into the Bloomberg administration, Dan Doctoroff made a private boast that his greatest achievement was the 78 re-zonings of 6,000 city blocks, which has opened the door to development, or, as many in our community would say, overdevelopment. But at what cost? Every day seems to bring another construction accident; every week another construction related death. Clearly the rapid development is outpacing Department of Buildings’ ability to oversee the safety of construction sites. My office has consistently raised these concerns with the D.O.B. for the past few years and yet we have been met with silence.

But former Deputy Mayor Doctoroff has not been silent. In an outgoing meeting with myself and other members of the New York State Assembly, Doctoroff, when asked about the state of the D.O.B., stated that former Commissioner Patricia Lancaster had done a good job but was in the impossible position of “trying to change a tire on a car going 60 m.p.h.” Wouldn’t reason and logic dictate that instead of continuing to drive and risk an accident, one should pull over and fix the flat? Unfortunately, the city has chosen to make Commissioner Lancaster a sacrificial lamb, as if changing the driver of the car will magically fix its blown out tire.

Clearly the flaws in the D.O.B.’s oversight have less to do with Commissioner Lancaster and more to do with the hyperbolic pace of development. Although there is not one policy that is to blame for the rash of accidents that the city has endured, the Giuliani era program of self-certification, which is still in place today, is a prime example of a pro-development strategy gone awry. Today, nearly half of new building applications are self-certified, allowing registered engineers and architects to approve projects for construction without any plan examination. Alarmingly, random D.O.B. audits of these self-certified buildings have found that 57 percent failed to comply with building codes.

One would think that architects and engineers who have created faulty plans would be disciplined, but this is rarely the case. From 2002-2007, only four engineers had their licenses either suspended or revoked. Most egregiously is the case of Robert Scarano, well known in my district as the architect of the Bowery Hotel and 353 Bowery. Although Mr. Scarano has submitted misleading plans for dozens of properties violating building codes, zoning restrictions and safety regulations, it was only after a worker perished at one of his sites that he lost the privilege of self-certification in 2006.

A self-evident failing and free-falling system has not been enough to convince D.O.B. to slow down and change policy. Sadly, it appears that the city only notices problems when someone dies. Recently, after yet another self-certification disaster in the Bronx in which two firefighters died, the D.O.B. announced that it would be more punitive with its system of self-certification. Now if an architect is found to have committed violations three times over the course of a year, they can have their privileges suspended. The fact that it took 12 years for such an oversight measure to occur is just another example of a car careening out of control.

As recent crane accidents demonstrate, D.O.B. has also been unable to keep up with the growing number of crane set-up applications. From 2003 to 2006 alone, the number of applications to set up cranes increased from 707 to 931, yet there are only 6 crane inspectors in the entire city. This issue is of particular concern to residents who live Downtown. Since this tragic accident three cranes have been forcibly shut down, all in Lower Manhattan, and 17 additional tower cranes are scheduled for use at the World Trade Center site.  Now, as a result of the tragic deaths on the Upper East Side, city inspectors will be required on site every time a crane is erected, jumped, or dismantled. I only hope that the city will provide the resources necessary for D.O.B. to hire more inspectors to carry out this new policy.

Basing public policy on tragic accidents is not the way that government should be run. Instead, policy should be designed to prevent such tragedies from occurring. The blind desire to push overdevelopment is not a virtue and its cost is paid by every community and every neighborhood dislocated by the gentrification encouraged by the Bloomberg administration. To change policy, the city must take its foot off the accelerator, thereby demonstrating its understanding that its duty to protect public safety must trump its zeal for encouraging construction.  Although commissioners should be held accountable for their departments, it is the mayor’s commitment to aggressive rezoning that ultimately deserves to be sacked.

Deborah J. Glick is the Assemblymember from the 66th District, which includes Tribeca, Soho, Hudson Square and part of Battery Park City.




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