Proposals for improving safety at construction sites in New York City after a rash of fatal accidents stacked up like high-rise scaffolding at a City Council hearing on Tuesday.
There were 12 separate bills proposing a variety of measures: requiring contractors to hire independent monitors; registering builders; establishing a hot line to report unsafe working conditions; and denying permits to developers who habitually flout the rules. But there was little agreement on which of those measures would actually prevent accidents and which would only enlarge an already overburdened bureaucracy.
The city’s real estate industry and construction unions proposed a more wholesale solution: replacing the city’s beleaguered Department of Buildings altogether with a new public corporation that advocates said would act more decisively and provide greater flexibility, while recruiting and training qualified professionals.
“The Buildings Department is collapsing under the weight of its own reform,” said Louis J. Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, who advocates the new corporation.
The Bloomberg administration had set a priority on reforming the department, which has long had a reputation for incompetence and corruption. Despite widely acknowledged improvements in recent years, the city’s buildings commissioner, Patricia J. Lancaster, resigned last month under pressure from City Hall. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was particularly incensed after the March 15 collapse of a tower crane on East 51st Street that killed seven people.
In an interview after the hearing, Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, the powerful lobbying arm of the city’s biggest developers, said that scrapping the Buildings Department and creating a new public corporation to oversee construction would “do more to protect the safety of the public, as well as construction workers, than most of the 12 bills submitted at the Council.”
Indeed, the real estate and construction industry vehemently opposed legislation proposed by Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, whose district includes the site of the crane collapse, that would give the Buildings Department the power to appoint independent safety monitors at the property owners’ expense at construction sites where there is a history of serious safety violations.
Mr. Coletti said that the proposal would not ensure safety, since there is already at least one if not two site safety coordinators at every building site. He also testified against a bill that would require the licensing or registration of all general contractors operating in the city.
But the acting buildings commissioner, Robert LiMandri, endorsed the Lappin bill, saying independent monitors would be “a meaningful additional tool to improve safety at problematic sites,” and would reduce the strain on the city’s 400 building inspectors who are struggling to keep up with the building boom.
Mr. LiMandri said that while he did not favor regulating large commercial builders, he was working on a proposal for additional regulation of demolition and concrete contractors.
The Bloomberg administration has been working on its own legislative package in recent weeks, but has run into fierce opposition from the construction industry over its plan to license those kind of contractors and require background checks. The industry contends that those measures would have no impact on safety, but could eliminate three or four of the five concrete suppliers in the city.
Mr. LiMandri said that a “whistleblower’s hot line” proposed by Councilwoman Letitia James of Brooklyn was unnecessary because the city already has a 311 information line. But Ms. James said that nonunion and immigrant workers did not use the 311 line because it did not guarantee them anonymity, and they feared for their jobs.
Most construction fatalities in New York City occur at sites that employ nonunion workers, according to a report by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The Bloomberg administration has stirred up a controversy by proposing to eliminate a requirement that the buildings commissioner be either a licensed architect or engineer, arguing that a good manager is more important. Architects, engineers and many in the construction industry say that an extensive understanding of how structures are built is critical to the job.
“We see no basis for removing the requirements,” said Richard T. Anderson, president of the New York Building Congress. “It’s a logical requirement to have someone who is technically qualified and conversant with the building processes.”