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A roundtable of architects, engineers, lawyers and other stakeholders in the building and construction fields recently gathered to review the inner workings of the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB).

State Assemblymember James Brennan (D-Brooklyn), who chairs the Standing Committee on Cities, convened the group to investigate current practices and determine whether or not the state legislature should take a more active role in overseeing the agency.

The move comes as a result of years of frustration with the agency, said Brennan. Months could pass before his office received responses from the department when they inquired about malfeasance by developers such as “exceeding zoning, density or scale limits, and unsafe or illegal construction,” he said.

“There is a clear lack of accountability by DOB personnel regarding non-compliance,” he said. Too often, said Brennan, his inquiries simply “fall into a black hole.”

His effort comes at a surprising time, some observers say, since the long-troubled agency has lately been on the mend. There’s been more enforcement, said Adam Friedman, executive director of the NY Industrial Retention Network, an organization devoted to sustaining the city’s industrial and manufacturing community. DOB is doing a better job evaluating building plans, he said. Sarah Crean, executive director of the Garment Industry Development Corporation, agreed, attributing the change to increased funding.

Between 2003-2007, the DOB budget grew from $52 million to $84 million; the number of inspectors will rise from 269 to a projected 368 next year. The department has also spent millions to upgrade its antiquated computer system, expecting to spend $12 million in 2007.

“We’re becoming more proactive,” said DOB spokesperson Jennifer Givner.

Last month, the city’s Department of Buildings issued its strategic plan for 2006-2009, an attempt to reform an agency long plagued by scandal and funding cuts. Commissioner Patricia Lancaster has spent the past four years restructuring her department into what she described in a May 3 press release as “an accountable, efficient and effective municipal building organization.”

The plan is “impressive,” wrote Rick Bell, executive director of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)/New York Chapter, in an email. “It shows that, for once, this particular regulatory agency is thinking strategically and planning ahead for changing concerns about safety, technology and constructability issues.”

Not everyone is so optimistic. City Councilmember Tony Avella, who sits on the Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee and chairs the Zoning & Franchises Subcommittee, cited several examples where DOB personnel ignored or delayed action on illegal construction activity and non-compliance with zoning laws.

“The basic philosophy of the agency seems to be about promoting development when it should be to ensure the housing stock and construction is safe and appropriate,” Avella said, pointing out that the agency recently began reporting to Daniel Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding.

“The DOB recognizes its mission to ensure public safety,” said Givner. “There has to be a balance—we can’t be too pro-development, but we also must allow projects to happen.”

Brennan’s roundtable raised sufficient questions to prompt hearings in either the summer or early fall. Likely outcomes could include the creation of a new oversight body, he said, tighter rules and stricter punishments including “the power to revoke the licenses of engineers and architects who act illegally.”

Brennan hopes such measures would curtail over-development and ensure safety citywide. “The current system gives 99 percent power to the developer to get a project done,” he said, “while enabling non-compliance with the law.”

—Jillian Jonas

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