Drop the Building Department's Before More Buildings Drop!
"Mayor Bloomberg must reexamine the structure of the
Buildings Department and make major changes"

In a letter to Mayor Bloomberg, Assemblyman Colton calls for the split of the 'conflicted bureaucracy' and proposes the creation of the Office of New Development and Construction Safety in response to the latest string of fatal construction accidents

"The Buildings Department should not wear two hats. An agency that works to foster development in the city by working with developers to make building in New York easier cannot be the same agency that is responsible to police developers and strictly enforce zoning and building codes," advises Assemblyman Colton, who proposed to Mayor Bloomberg the formation of a new watchdog agency, that would focus its efforts solely on new development and construction safety, while the Buildings Department would focus on the existing housing stock in the city

Here is the text of Assemblyman Colton's letter to Mayor Bloomberg:

March 22, 2008

Honorable Michael R. Bloomberg
Mayor of the City of New York
City Hall
New York, NY 10007

Re: The division of the NYC Buildings Department
and the creation of the Office of
New Development and Construction Safety

Dear Mayor Bloomberg:

Allow me to first commend you on the city government's swift response to the devastating crane collapse that occurred in the East Side of Manhattan last week. Under your leadership, I believe that all of the city's emergency personnel responded bravely and diligently as they always do.

However, I must urge you to strongly consider transforming our government solely from a reactionary body to a preventative force. I have never questioned our city's ability to respond to such emergencies that occurred in Manhattan last week, but I do question if whether our government had done enough to prevent it from happening in the first place.

It is no secret that the Buildings Department has come under intense fire and scrutiny in the last few years as the number of construction work fatalities have doubled in recent years, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, according to the BLS, from the period of 2005 to 2006, New York City held a higher percentage of construction deaths than the overall U.S. average.

The major media networks do not cover every construction incident in the city. That does not mean that incidents that are not shown on the ten o'clock news are any less important than those that are. The issue of new developments and construction safety is a major citywide problem. In my district of Bensonhurst, for instance, just a few years ago, a piece of a condominium construction project on Kings Highway near West 3rd Street, collapsed right on top of a neighboring Dunkin' Donuts store. According to the Building Information System, there had been reports made that the site was unsafe just as in the case of the collapsed crane in Manhattan. There have been so many more documented incidents of construction incidents leading to damage done to adjacent properties, safety hazards, and quality of life disturbances.

The fundamental question I am asking you is: Do you believe the Buildings Department, in its current form, is optimally protecting and serving the citizens of New York City? In my judgment, the Buildings Department needs major reform, resources, and reorganization and it needs all three now.

In my view, the Buildings Department has amassed itself in becoming an inoperable and conflicted bureaucracy with too many urgent responsibilities. One agency single handedly:

  • must ensure that every resident in the city has running hot water 24 hours a day 7 days a week,

  • must ensure that every tenant receives adequate and lawful heat during the winter season,

  • must ensure that landlords are combating rodent and vermin infestations,

  • must ensure that every elevator in every building is functioning properly,

  • must ensure that every zoning code is being complied with,

  • must ensure that development plans are safe,

  • must ensure that electrical codes are being enforced,

  • must ensure that cranes are being monitored properly,

  • must ensure that violators of building codes are paying their fines,

And the list goes on and on.

The same agency that is responsible for fostering growth and development by making things easier for developers to build in the city is the same agency responsible to police them and strictly enforce building, construction, and zoning codes. The product of such a conflicted system has left the general public to trust developers to self certify construction projects that they and their hired architects claim to be safe and sound. As a former public school teacher, I beg to use the following analogy: It is like a teacher giving an exam to a student only to have them grade it and enter in their own report card grade. That is one sure way to get scores up, but it does not ensure an education.

In the case of the Buildings Department, by allowing a privately hired architect to self certify (essentially rubberstamp) a building safety certificate, the department puts lives directly at risk.

By the Buildings Commissioner's own admission, the Buildings Department does not possess adequate staff to evaluate all of the city's construction projects. The lopsided ratio of inspectors to construction projects is outright dangerous and demands immediate attention.

I believe that additional resources, although critical, will not be enough to address these serious safety gaps. That is why I am proposing and asking you to strongly consider reforming the Buildings Department by creating a separate and new agency solely responsible for overseeing new development projects in the city.

The Office of New Development and Construction Safety (NDCS) would take the place of the Buildings Department in ensuring that builders seeking to develop new construction projects in New York City are meeting all safeguards and building codes. Once this new office deems a project safe and secure, the agency, not a developer-hired architect, certifies its safety to the Buildings Department.

In return, this allows the Buildings Department to solely focus most of its efforts on all of the existing housing stock in the city. The DOB would follow its routine responsibilities outside of policing new development projects. This may even allow the DOB to even improve services to tenants that all too often complain of no heat or broken elevators in their building by allocating more resources to these serious violations.

In my estimation, we are not necessarily adding more bureaucracy to our government if we are following the theory of addition through subtraction. We are eliminating a major responsibility from the DOB and handing it over to an agency that will focus like a laser-beam on ensuring the safety and security of all new development projects and their surroundings.

As this initiative may require additional resources, we must remember that we are in a race against time. New foundations for construction projects are being dug and new plans are being drawn up as I write you this letter. Future construction related deaths are not a question of if, but rather questions of when and where.

I am offering my fully pledged assistance in working with you towards entertaining my proposal and I am open to any changes you may desire to make. Like you, I believe we in government must become innovative in solving some of our most pressing challenges. That is why I am working hard to protect the citizens of New York from faulty and dangerous construction, and I want to partner with you and your office in ensuring that it happens.

I look forward to hearing from you regarding this urgent matter and I thank you in advance for your sincere and thorough consideration.

Very truly yours,

William Colton
Member of Assembly