Monday, March 17, 2008


(Updated below - updated again)

The giant crane that fell Saturday in the Turtle Bay neighborhood of Manhattan killed at least four, with three still missing. One of the missing is an employee of the bar called Fubar, which occupied the ground floor of the townhouse on 50th street that was reduced to rubble by the toppled crane.

Fubar, of course, comes from what is most commonly believed to be the WWII-era acronym for Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition—and FUBAR is what New York is becoming under the building boom ushered in by the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

These four (and possibly seven) deaths come on top of five other construction-related deaths this year (which, I remind you, is only 11 weeks old). Assuming that those lost are not found alive—as NYC Fire Commish Nick Scoppetta has pretty much already signaled—that would mean 2008 has already equaled last year’s construction death total. And we are well on our way toward surpassing the higher total of 18 from 2006. (Though if you measure from 9/30/05 to 9/30/06, as a city study did, the total is 29 dead—an increase of 61% over the previous 12 months.) And as I noted after another of these recent deaths—at the Trump SoHo—the number of construction injuries has skyrocketed under Mayor Mike.

And Bloomberg’s reaction to this most recent tragedy?

Sadly, construction is a dangerous thing. We don't know why this happened. We will do an investigation.

Will there be fines? Will anyone go to jail? Will licenses be revoked? Or building permits? Will development be slowed or stopped citywide until we get a handle on why construction sites have turned so deadly?

There might be a fine or two (though hikes in fines were proposed last year, I believe the maximum is still $2,500—a figure that must really scare an industry that expects to build $45 billion worth of properties in the next ten years), but as for the rest of the above list, don’t hold your breath.

But, more important than any of the above, perhaps: Will anyone in Mayor Bloomberg’s administration take responsibility for what they have wrought?

Again, my suggestion is to breathe.

Over the past six years, as Bloomberg and his cadre of developer-friendly deputies have rushed headlong to remake the city in Mayor Mike’s corporatist image, luxury high-rises and soul-crushing office towers have shot up like deadly amanitas after a summer rain, landmark-quality buildings (as well as a couple of designated NYC landmarks) have been razed, and neighborhoods have been damaged or destroyed. The under-funded infrastructure bridles under the strain.

And during this building boom, the number of homeless families has skyrocketed.

And, of course, there are the construction injuries and deaths. As Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer complained soon after the crane collapse, “This is becoming standard in my borough; I think we have a real issue here.”

We certainly do.

There are clearly not enough building inspectors, and the ones we have are sadly in need of re-training. The Department of Buildings is underfunded, and the sanctions for construction violations are pathetically light. People must be held responsible in real and certain ways—and I would start at the top.

Presiding over this building boom, the destruction, the injuries, the deaths, has been Patricia Lancaster, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Buildings. Her lack of accountability to date is a citywide running joke (local blog Gowanus Lounge has named an award after her in recognition of construction sites that show callous disregard for the rules); her coziness with high-powered developers is well documented. Her Department of Buildings issues the permits for construction, manages the inspection process, and theoretically responds to buildings violations. In an accountability-based society, Lancaster would resign. If there is to be any message of accountability sent, Patricia Lancaster should be fired—and fired posthaste.

(Commissioner Lancaster did, just two weeks ago, propose a series of reforms and laws designed to improve workplace safety and oversight, but after six years of decreasing safety and poor oversight, it seems too little, too late.)

Of course, her ultimate boss, Michael Bloomberg, is ultimately responsible. It is his technocratic “to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs” management style and his “the business of New York is business” vision that have created this wild west of the east coast. But he won’t fire himself, and the city has no recall process.

For now, Mike Bloomberg should attend the funerals of each and every construction worker that he has helped kill—starting with the four (that we know of) from Saturday—and he should get down on his knees and beg their families’ forgiveness. Then he should declare a citywide moratorium on new private construction permits that are not required to provide sub-market rate housing or repair unsafe structures until he can figure out just why he has failed so miserably to protect the workers and the neighborhoods. The city needs to better fund the DoB, retrain the existing inspectors, and likely hire more. Then the Mayor and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn need to make buildings violations criminal infractions punishable by much larger fines and jail time.

Alas, all of that might only slow the bleeding. There is simply too much developer money in New York City’s electoral process to expect a responsible approach to growth, development, and construction safety. Developers’ relationships with the Mayor and many who want to succeed him are far too close to expect any of the electeds to actively and truthfully represent the needs of the longtime residents of New York’s neighborhoods.

Without some sort of comprehensive campaign finance reform, I can’t see how that changes. For, while the city might still be in transition to something unrecognizable, the electoral system is already FUBAR.

Update: The three missing in the crane disaster have now been confirmed dead. Lost City has a partial list of this year’s NYC construction disasters, and also calls for the end of the Patricia Lancaster era at the Department of Buildings—as does NY City Council Member Tony Avella. Gowanus Lounge proposes a smart list of reforms for DoB.

Update 2: The Fubar employee, Juan Perez, was rescued from the rubble of the collapsed 50th Street building. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital Center, where, as of Sunday, he was listed in serious condition.

(cross-posted on guy2k, Daily Kos, and The Seminal)

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