NYC buildings commissioner resigns

April 22, 2008 9:10:20 PM PDT
The city's buildings commissioner resigned Tuesday, under fire from irate residents and the mayor over a rising number of deadly construction accidents, including a crane collapse at a site with mishandled inspections and zoning problems. Patricia Lancaster, whom even opponents credited for trying to reform an inefficient, corruption-riddled department over six years in office, told Mayor Michael Bloomberg she would leave a day after he publicly singled out her agency as a problem.

"I felt it was time to return to the private sector," Lancaster, one of the few Bloomberg administration commissioners to leave in a crisis, said in a statement. "I am proud of the groundbreaking work the department has done during my tenure to root out corruption, increase transparency, overhaul the building code and increase safety for workers and the public alike."

Her departure was immediate. Robert LiMandri, the department's first deputy commissioner, agreed to serve as acting commissioner until Bloomberg names a successor.

Lancaster, a 54-year-old architect and real estate broker and the first woman to head the buildings department, rewrote an outdated building code, created online databases for nearly 1 million city properties, stepped up inspections and wrote new safety rules.

But the reforms couldn't stop the spike in fatal accidents at high-rise sites - 13 deaths this year alone, including seven in last month's crane collapse in a midtown residential neighborhood.

Last week, Lancaster acknowledged that the department mistakenly approved construction on the 43-story condominium using the crane. The building was not zoned for a height above 30 stories, she said.

A buildings inspector had found the crane to be safe a day before the collapse; another inspector was arrested for lying earlier about inspecting the same crane.

The public had complained for months about zoning and safety problems with the crane, said Bruce Silberblatt, vice president of the Turtle Bay Association, representing the neighborhood where the crane collapsed.

"The habit of just being brushed off by the Buildings Department is endemic," Silberblatt said.

Bloomberg, known for fiercely defending his agency heads during crises, on Monday declared, "I don't think anybody should be fully satisfied with the Department of Buildings. Whether they've done everything they can or not is something I'm looking at."

After accepting Lancaster's resignation, the mayor on Tuesday called the commissioner "somebody who's dedicated that time to really making a difference in a very difficult world. ... She selflessly has worked very hard and I am sorry to see her go."

He said of the commissioner's post, "It's a very difficult job and hopefully we'll take and build on what she ... has done and take it forward."

Critics said the department has been a mess since the 1990s, when it created a "self-certification" system to streamline the permit process and drastically reduced its inspections staff. Lancaster has been credited for raising the number of inspectors from under 300 to more than 400 in recent years.

"She inherited a corrupt and dysfunctional agency and she brought it a long way," said Council Member Jessica Lappin, who represents the district where the crane collapsed and where, in a separate incident, a window installer fell nine stories to his death last week.

Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association, said the department had grown stronger under Lancaster's tenure, but said some of the stepped-up inspections may have shut down work at sites for trivial violations that "weren't necessarily safety-related."