NEWS AND ISSUES


TESTIMONY BY NEW YORK STATE SENATOR THOMAS K. DUANE BEFORE THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL TASK FORCE ON OPERATIONS AND IMPROVEMENT OF THE DEPARTMENT OF BUILDINGS

December 4, 2006

My name is Thomas K. Duane and I represent New York Statefs 29th Senatorial District. I appreciate the City Councilfs commitment to identifying and addressing New Yorkersf concerns about the New York City Department of Buildings (DOB), and thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify today.

I have been concerned for some time about DOBfs ability to perform its critical enforcement, inspection and permit issuing functions, given increasing demands on the agency | demands that have been fueled in large part by our cityfs continuing construction boom. While I am critical of some aspects of DOBfs performance, I am confident that they could be addressed if a proportional amount of the taxes from the record $20 billion spent on construction in New York City this year were allocated to DOB for inspectors and other aspects of its operations.

Like many others, I am concerned about DOBfs ability to provide oversight of the growing number of construction sites throughout the City. I was particularly alarmed when on September 30, 2006, a 13-foot section of a construction crane collapsed at a development site at 110 Third Avenue, which is in my Senate district. Although the incident temporarily displaced neighbors and closed streets, remarkably it did not result in any major injuries or deaths. We were lucky. Just over a month later, on November 1, 2006, a construction worker plummeted from his scaffolding perch to his death at a construction site in Union Square, also in my district. These are just two of the construction accidents that have been occurring throughout the City at a dramatically increasing rate. In fact, an article in the November 22, 2006 New York Times noted that there have been 88 construction accidents in the City so far this year, and the number of fatal accidents rose 61 percent in the 12 months that ended September 30, 2006.

While DOB has been responsive in the wake of these accidents, swiftly halting construction and issuing violations, I am deeply concerned over how they occurred in the first place. Moreover, I am troubled by how vulnerable we are to future, even more devastating incidents, given the extensive construction throughout the City. On October 4, 2006, Newsday reported that New York City construction spending hit an all time high of more than $20 billion this year.

In light of the violations cited in these incidents, I have to wonder if there isnft some way for DOB to play a larger preventative role. In the case of the Third Avenue crane collapse, current DOB reports indicate that no master rigger or tower rigger had been present during the cranefs dismantling. Also, the equipment necessary to use the cranefs hydraulic system had been improperly used. DOB procedure already dictates the inspection of crane and derrick equipment by DOB personnel for safety before assembly. Could a similar inspection also be implemented immediately before the dismantling of such heavy and potentially dangerous equipment as cranes? It would seem that having such a process in place would ensure that safety measures are employed in similar situations and that appropriate specialists are in place.

Of course, additional inspections canft be done without sufficient staffing, and DOB resources appear to be strained and thinly spread. This has been made especially apparent to me by the numerous complaints my office receives about illegal after-hours and weekend work being done at construction sites and the seeming inability for DOB to send inspectors in a timely manner when a complaint is made. This unintentionally allows illegal work to continue unfettered throughout the City.

The proliferation of illegal advertising on sidewalk sheds is another example of DOBfs inability to enforce the law. DOB acknowledges that it is illegal to advertise on a scaffold shed or a construction wall in New York City, and that violations carry fines up to $25,000. Yet of 42 illegal sidewalk shed ads identified by the Municipal Art Society as the most egregious, Borough President Scott Stringerfs office found that 79 percent had never been issued a DOB violation for illegal signage. These illegal advertisements are an eyesore for our neighborhoods, and each year the City loses hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential fines because of lax enforcement. This situation also discourages owners from completing work in a timely manner and removing sheds, as there is so much money being made by the proliferation of advertising on these sheds. I call on DOB to commit the resources to inspect and punish those in violation of this law.

I would also like to take this opportunity to state my hopes for improved communication between DOB and the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC). I am extremely concerned that our Cityfs historic buildings lack much needed protection against destruction because an alteration or demolition permit issued by DOB currently supersedes any effort by LPC to protect a building being considered for landmark status. I believe that a much stronger line of cooperation and coordination needs to be established between DOB and LPC if we are to save our Cityfs historic buildings. DOB needs to make it a policy to immediately place a stop work order on any building that is calendared by the LPC for a landmark hearing, regardless of any DOB demolition permits already issued.

I also call on DOB to continue to take more care to honor the provisions of the Clinton Special District. Applications for construction permits in the District must always be closely scrutinized for compliance.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to offer my testimony before this Task Force. I look forward to working with all of you to make DOB even more effective in fulfilling its mandate to ensure the safe and lawful use, construction, renovation and preservation of New York Cityfs buildings and properties.


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