Robert LiMandri stepped in to helm New York City’s Department of Buildings last April at a time of disarray and crisis.
Weeks before, seven people were killed when a crane fell at a condo at 303 East 51st Street improperly zoned for its lot. The accident also prompted the resignation of then-commissioner Patricia Lancaster after it came out that an inspector had faked a key report. Ultimately, rigging contractors were indicted for manslaughter for using worn-out equipment.
But even after LiMandri took over, problems persisted, like in May, when a crane collapsed at a condo at 333 East 91st Street, killing two people.
In response to a total of 19 construction site fatalities in 2008, compared with 12 in 2007, LiMandri increased stop-work orders.
In 2008, 14,861 stop-work orders were issued, close to 5,000 more than the 10,132 in 2007, says the department, which added that the number of inspectors has also gone up, from 388 to 436. And this winter, LiMandri drafted new site rules to augment the construction and building codes revised last summer.
But it’s not like his ascent has been controversy-free. Indeed, in January, an engineering group sued the city, saying LiMandri is a political appointee who doesn’t have the proper technical background. He spoke to The Real Deal about what he’s accomplished and what lies ahead.
In January, the New York State Society of Professional Engineers sued to remove you because you’re not a licensed engineer, saying that your post requires somebody with greater technical skills. Does the group’s claim have any merit? Have you considered taking the test to become a licensed engineer?
Everyone has a right to their opinion. I will say this, though: This agency has some of the best engineers it’s ever had, a tremendous staff, with leading experts on the ground every day making the technical decisions. We will lead the agency with the vision that will make construction sites safe.
Last month, after a $4 million study, you announced 41 steps to avoid accidents, beyond the new construction codes established last summer. A lot have to do with cranes. Are they enough? Will workers really be safer?
Yes. What is most important for us as an enforcer is to raise the standard level of care, and I think these are a step in the right direction. And frankly, I am already seeing signs of change in terms of voluntary compliance anyway, like sites’ adding safety nets to make pedestrians safe.
When you did revise the city’s construction and building codes in July, the mayor talked about a focus on sites that “pose the most serious safety hazards to construction workers and the public.” Which types of sites was he referring to?
We are no longer most concerned with buildings that are less than 15 stories, but now, 10 stories and above. But we’re also aware that low-rise sites can cause problems, too, especially where excavations cause damages to the foundations of adjacent properties, which has been a problem in Brooklyn and Queens. So we’re keeping more of an eye on those as well.
Last year, there was keen interest from Washington to create new national accreditation standards for crane operators. Are they still being discussed? What about the opposition from the Building Trades Employer’s Association to the idea?
New York already has some of the highest standards for crane operation in the country and world. Crane experts have testified to this, but there is opportunity to make cranes safer. We will follow federal guidelines to some extent when they are good, like tracking crane parts on tower cranes. And we have already adopted federal standards for the smallest cranes.
What other safety initiatives have you launched that we may not have heard as much about?
In February, we launched a worker-safety campaign that will put up posters at job sites in seven languages saying, “Hey, watch your back. You should be tied off. Do this on a regular basis so it becomes part of your routine.”
“Professional certification,” a 1990s program to speed up development by allowing architects to certify whether their own projects comply with zoning laws, has come under heavy criticism in recent months, especially in regards to architect Robert Scarano, who has been charged with fraud. Will it continue?
Architects and engineers play a vital role in making sure construction sites are safe, but those who don’t take it seriously will hear about it. We have already implemented some checks and balances to make sure it has more integrity, like zoning reviews of sites prior to approval.
What happens as the city’s building boom slows down? Will you cut back on budget or staff?
No. We have grown in the last seven years under this mayor because he realized how important we are as an agency. Now is the time that we can make construction sites safer to get ready for the next boom.