Laurel accident prompts more calls for construction oversight

By Candace Taylor | December 23, 2008 03:47PM

A local City Council member is calling for tighter scrutiny of construction projects after a piece of limestone from the under-construction Laurel condominium damaged the roof of an adjacent school.

Last Thursday, the limestone tile fell from the construction site onto the roof of the school next door
, said the developer of the Laurel, Izak Senbahar of the Alexico Group. The Laurel, a 30-story tower at 400 East 67th Street at First Avenue, was also the site of a construction worker’s death in April.

“I’d like to see greater scrutiny on sites where children are at risk and people are dying,” said City Council member Jessica Lappin, whose district includes the Laurel as well as 303 East 51st Street, the site of a May crane collapse that killed seven people.

The building adjacent to the Laurel, owned by the Church of St. John Nepomucene, is rented by an English/Italian bilingual school, Guglielmo Marconi, La Scuola d’Italia. The school, which serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade, has its main campus at 12 East 96th Street but holds some of its classes at An Annex On 67th Street, school staff said.

There was some damage to the roof of the building, a church spokesperson said, adding that students were attending classes during the incident but no one was hurt.

Senbahar said the damage was minimal because of the roof protection that is installed at the construction site to prevent falling debris from damaging the rooftops of adjacent buildings. “The current roof protection in place at the Laurel conforms to the standards required by the [Department of Buildings] and successfully mitigated the situation,” he said.

He added: “We have determined that this was an isolated incident precipitated by inclement weather during construction. We continue to cooperate with all local agencies to make sure the building and the area surrounding the building is safe.”

The Italian school on 67th Street sits between the Laurel and the outdoor yard of P.S. 183, the Robert Louis Stevenson elementary school. The yard, where PS 183 children have recess and where pickups and drop-offs occur, was closed after the incident as a safety precaution and will not be reopened until after the holiday vacation, said Lisa Ehrlich, co-president of the executive board of the school’s PTA.

DOB issued five violations and a stop-work order at the site, stipulating that work on the exterior of the building cannot continue until the violations have been corrected, according to DOB spokesperson Tony Sclafani.

The April fatality at the Laurel occurred after a nylon strap failed, causing a worker to fall from the 23rd floor to a 14th floor balcony. At the time, city officials said the building had been cited by city inspectors for 25 code violations during the year prior. 

Lappin said she has proposed legislation, currently being discussed by the council, which would give the buildings department the power to assign independent safety monitors for up to 90 days to construction sites where there is a history of serious safety violations. The city council has addressed various bills seeking to improve construction safety.

Currently, “all we can do is stop work, figure out what happened and start again,” Lappin said. “When you have sites where you have continual problems, there needs to be a better mechanism in place.”

The 67th Street annex of Guglielmo Marconi, La Scuola d’Italia is closed for the winter holidays, school staff said, but they would not comment on the incident.

P.S. 183’s Ehrlich said parents at her school have expressed concerns about the safety of the Laurel construction site since the project began over a year ago. No children have been injured as a result of the construction, but screws, nails, garbage and hard hats have fallen from the site onto the playground, she said. At the time of the April fatality, she said, parents were concerned that children would see some evidence of the accident.

“We had lots of parents who would continually call 311,” Ehrlich said, adding that school representatives had several meetings with the contractor on the site, Hunter Roberts Construction Group, to discuss safety concerns. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Ehrlich said she is hoping that by the time school is back in session January 5, construction on the exterior of the Laurel will be finished. According to the developer, the facade is slated for completion in about three weeks, and the entire project is expected to be finished in February 2009.

“At this point, we as parents just wanted the building to be finished,” she said.  “As soon as the building is closed up, everyone will feel more secure.”

Ehrlich said she feels the city needs stronger safety regulations for construction sites, especially when there are schools nearby. “It’s scary what goes on,” she said. “The general feeling throughout the city is just how un-secure a lot of these construction sites are.”

But the immediate emphasis is that the project proceeds safely, Council member Lappin said, adding, “we’re going to have to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure these kids are safe.”


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