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Shining spotlight on building issues - Assemblyman Joseph Lentol wants to create new agency to oversee construction

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Assemblymember Joseph Lentol, whose Williamsburg-Greenpoint district has seen a boom of building construction in recent years, announced a plan to improve oversight of rampant construction violations.

Lentol’s plan would take oversight out of the hands of the beleaguered Department of Buildings (DOB), whose safety practices have come under scrutiny since a March 15 crane collapse at a Manhattan construction site killed seven people.

Instead, Lentol wants the city to create a separate agency whose sole responsibility is policing construction sites.

“It took a heartbreaking incident at 51st [Street] and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan and the resignation of a commissioner [Patricia Lancaster, who resigned shortly after the collapse] to shine the spotlight on problems we in Brooklyn and the outer boroughs have known all along,” said Lentol.

“The Buildings Department lacks the expertise, focus, staffing and the will to monitor and control development.”

According to Lentol, the DOB’s dual role of both approving construction plans and policing sites creates an inherent conflict of interest.

“Because they approved the plans, the Buildings Department is invested in a good outcome,” he said.

“Should they monitor these buildings, or should there be a separate agency? It’s more than a lack of manpower: It’s a philosophical problem as well as a resource problem.”

Lentol characterized having an independent oversight agency as “a simple matter of checks and balances.”

He believes such an agency would put pressure on the DOB to be more careful about approving construction plans. In addition, he thinks that creating an agency focused solely on enforcement would improve the quality of the oversight.

In Lentol’s opinion, the DOB as currently constructed is obsolete and inadequate to the demands placed upon it by the city’s construction boom.

“They weren’t prepared for the building explosion that began with the Bloomberg administration. They had no clue they would have to get out there and monitor all the run-amok development that’s going on,” he said.

Lentol originally planned to introduce a bill in the Assembly as a way to jump start conversation, but now plans on convening people from the construction industry and unions “so we can come up with something everyone can live with” before introducing legislation.

Ward Dennis, chair of the ULURP Committee of Community Board 1, expressed support for Lentol’s proposal.

“I don’t usually like the idea of creating yet more bureaucracies and agencies, but as a way of getting better enforcement, it’s definitely worth a look,” he said.

Improving enforcement has been a frequent topic at ULURP Committee meetings.

Last year, Evan Thies, a ULURP Committee member, proposed that the DOB allocate resources based on the number of construction projects and complaints in a given area.

The plan would be similar to the Police Department’s “Impact Zones” created under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in which deployment of police officers is based on where they are most needed.

Williamsburg and Greenpoint, areas booming with construction, would surely receive a lot of attention from inspectors under Thies’ plan. In 2006, there were 784 emergency construction complaints in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, an increase of more than 300 percent since 2003, according to DOB statistics.

A January article in the New York Post reported that Community Board 1 has the highest number of construction noise complaints in the city, having filed 698 of them between July 2007 and January 2008.

“It’s like the Wild West around here. It’s something we’ve been saying for five years,” said community activist Phil DiPaolo.

“We’ve seen enough families displaced [resulting from unsafe construction practices]. There’s been a lot of pain and suffering because of the DOB.”

DiPaolo said that construction projects are being rushed so that buildings can be vested to receive the 421-A tax abatement, which expires in July.

“Now that the warmer weather is here and the deadline’s coming, they’re really going pedal to the metal,” he said.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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