The latest on the building mess
Dateline : Thursday, March 02, 2006
Buildings Consensus: Agency a Mess
By Shane Miller
Large demolition projects, damaged homes and forced evacuations are starting to become a way of life for residents of North Brooklyn, and many feel there is a genuine lack of concern on behalf of the city as their neighborhood and homes crumble around them. Frustrated, residents have spurred their State Assemblyman to introduce legislation at the state level that would place new oversights on a city agency.
"These are the kinds of buildings that are coming down all over the neighborhood," decried Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, pointing to a home on Havemeyer Street that was evacuated last year because excavation work next door made it unsafe to occupy. "In their midst, the Department of Buildings has seen it fit to throw up their hands and allow what is going on to continue to go on."
Lentol has already introduced one bill into the State Assembly that would require developers to set up an escrow account in case they damage the homes on either side of a construction site. The money could be used to pay for repairs or help with temporary relocation costs when tenants or homeowners are forced out of their residences. Lentol's legislation would also set up a system to expedite claims quickly.
"The money could be paid without having to go to court," Lentol told a crowd of about 20 on a blustery Friday morning.
Lentol also hopes to introduce a bill that would place strict liability on developers if they damage homes nearby. This would save slighted homeowners the trouble of proving negligence on the part of builders, which can result in long court cases at great expense to the aggrieved party.
Finally, Lentol wants to create a task force consisting of engineers, architects, inspectors and other professionals who would evaluate every demolition application on an individual basis. As Lentol noted, the homes in North Brooklyn sit on top of clay, water and sometimes even an underground oil spill, and therefore present a unique set of circumstances. "I'm not an architect or an engineer," admitted Lentol. "I don't know that much about buildings, but I'll work with the best people."
Lentol is waiting on a final draft of the last bill, but hopes to introduce it in the Assembly next week, and all of the bills will need to find co-sponsors in the State Senate. Lentol also doesn't expect a lot of help from the city or the mayor. "I expect the city will fight all of the bills," predicted the Assemblyman. "They don't want the micro-management of DOB, and they don't want the State Legislature telling them what to do."
When the Star called the mayor's office for comment, they referred inquiries to DOB. Spokesperson Ilyse Fink said that she felt the department and Lentol were basically "on the same page." "The assemblyman thinks that the problem is attached to demolition, but we think excavation is where we need to focus our energies," explained Fink.
Fink said that the Department met with Lentol last November and discussed many of the issues Lentol is addressing with his proposed legislation. She said that perhaps both parties walked out of the meeting with a slightly different expectation of how the other would proceed. "What is important is that we all agree that action is necessary," said Fink.
Fink said the department is considering a rule that would require developers to notify DOB 24 hours before they start excavation - like they do with demolition projects - so the department can keep closer tabs on the work. However, the new guidelines are in the very preliminary stages.
"This type of notice would enable our inspectors to visit these sites at the start of construction activity, and hopefully prevent the type of accidents that seem to be proliferating," wrote Fink in an email. Fink said that DOB was also pursuing "similarly themed" legislation that would require contractors to carry insurance specifically to cover damages they cause to adjoining properties. A draft version of the local law is currently under review by the city's Law Department. Fink added that Commissioner Patricia Lancaster has also formed a forensic engineering unit with expertise investigating construction accidents. The experts would examine collapses or accidents and work with the necessary parties to develop a plan to shore up surrounding homes.
But North Brooklyn residents like Peter Gillespie argue that it is time for the city to realize that there is a real crisis in the neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, and that they need to take drastic steps.
"The city needs to understand that this is because of the recent rezoning, and that they can't deal with this on a case-by-case basis," Gillespie said last Friday.
Gillepsie said that in many cases it is up to individual homeowners to ensure that construction and demolition work next to their houses is proceeding in a safe manner, which he feels is backwards. "The responsibility falls on the developer, the DOB and ultimately the mayor," he argued.
Councilman Tony Avella of northeast Queens, an outspoken critic of DOB, agrees."The mayor has to see that the agency is in chaos, and in some ways I can't help but think that he is part of the problem," hypothesized Avella. "We need to take immediate action to get immediate results."
Avella and several of his like-minded colleagues are trying to set up a City Council task force that would oversee DOB. However, the Councilman says because there is a new Council it could take a while before the idea makes it back to the table. In the meantime, he has suggested to Commissioner Lancaster the idea of setting up a cabinet comprised of council members, DOB representatives, concerned residents and industry professionals, all of whom would meet on a regular basis. "We could set an agenda, and meet maybe once a month," explained Avella. "We could discuss the major problems, and then was could talk about what is being done to address them."
Last Friday, Lentol promised that if the city failed to take adequate action, he would call hearings at the state level. "I may be accused of overstepping my bounds, but it wouldn't be the first time," said Lentol.
"I wish more politicians would overstep their bounds," shouted Roger Owens, who along with his wife and two small children had to be evacuated from their home just before the holidays. They just moved back in last week. "If you hadn't," Owens continued, "we would probably still be homeless."