Cracks in the foundation
Buildings Department fails as construction booms
By MICHAEL GOODWIN
DAILY NEWS COLUMNIST
Wednesday, May 30th 2007
The stories are gripping, and infuriating.
Tenants forced to evacuate their apartments because shoddy developers working next-door undermined the foundation of their homes.
Crooked architects and engineers falsely claiming they are following laws and getting away with peanut-sized fines when they are caught.
Scores of untrained workers, most immigrants, killed in preventable accidents and thousands of others paid substandard wages off-the-books to work in dangerous conditions.
The horror stories from reporter Brian Kates' investigative series in the Daily News sound like they're from a gold rush town in the Old West. That they are from the current case files of the city's Buildings Department is a major scandal. Overwhelmed, undermanned and uninspired, the agency responsible for making sure one man's dream isn't a nightmare for others is failing.
More shocking, the agency's near collapse apparently comes as a surprise to Mayor Bloomberg. He said Monday he had read Kates' articles and would meet with Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster to discuss the findings. Question, Mr. Mayor: How come you had to learn about this from the newspaper?
After all, it's not as though the articles reflect an aberration or isolated cases. What Kates discovered is a systemic breakdown of a vital service, including on projects the city itself funds. And it's not the first time. The News found similar problems last year, and Assemblyman James Brennan (D-Brooklyn) held hearings. So many residents and civic groups wanted to voice their frustrations that a second day of hearings was held to give them time to speak. A common point is that complaints to the city, including through the 311 line, often bring no response, or one so late that the damage was done.
Last December, when Bloomberg talked about managing growth, I wrote that the Buildings Department had become like an ambulance service - turning up at construction sites only when there had been serious accidents. As the mangled bodies of construction workers are carried away, you can count on the department to suddenly find violations. Some preventive medicine would help.
Bloomberg did make changes in scaffolding rules and wants an overhaul of the entire building code, including updating standards to reflect modern technology and techniques. Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, in a phone interview, defended the agency, saying it had been "a roadblock to development" and had suffered from "decades of corruption and neglect."
"It has made enormous strides, but yes, there is still more to do. It cannot be turned around in a day," he said.
Sheer volume is one of the issues. The number of residential permits, for example, increased 110% in five years, while the inspector force has not kept pace.
And there are problems with the self-certification system. Created by Mayor Rudy Giuliani to combat rampant corruption and backlogs, the goal of creating an honor system among architects and engineers has been turned into a cheaters' paradise. Audits have found that up to two-thirds of the self-certified plans have errors, some so egregious, like extra floors on buildings, that they could only be intentional.
Brennan, whose Park Slope and Flatbush district has been swamped with construction problems, said yesterday he has proposed seven bills in Albany, including one to license general contractors and another to force the city to report all violations to community boards and do thousands of audits to make sure projects conform to plans. Yet he concedes "a lack of will power" is part of the problem.
"The people at the top, the mayor and Dan Doctoroff, are in ecstasy over all the construction," Brennan told me. "But they're not perceiving the dark side of what's going on."
If they don't see it now, it's only because they don't want to.