The Department of Buildings can giveth and it can taketh away. And key filing privileges are one of the perks over which the DOB wields considerable power.
In the past month, the DOB has cracked down on several alleged “bad actors” who violated city construction codes and zoning resolutions by giving professionals a choice: Either forfeit their privileges or prepare to fight for them in court.
Since March 24, seven architects and engineers have voluntarily surrendered two types of privileges: professional certification and directive 14. The former allows architects and engineers to self-certify that new projects and renovations abide by city regulations, without the oversight of a plan examiner. Directive 14 also permits a limited examination by the DOB on projects that don’t change the use or egress of the structure.
A spokesperson for the DOB indicated that the agency is honing in on “bad actors in the construction industry,” including “licensed professionals who abuse their professional certification privileges.”
“The department’s programs for limited supervision rely on the honesty and integrity of engineers, architects and other registered design professionals,” he said.
Because the individuals who lost their privileges in the past two months did so voluntarily, the DOB doesn’t provide details on their alleged violations beyond noncompliance with construction and zoning codes. Architect William Ross, who surrendered privileges on April 30, said he didn’t want to pay for an attorney to fight the DOB before the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH). He typically works on a small volume of minor renovations, but losing these privileges puts him at a competitive disadvantage. With self-certification — which was introduced during the Giuliani administration to address a high volume of new construction work — the DOB can approve projects within a day. Without it, the review process can take several weeks. Ross said developers don’t want to wait the extra time.
“They are really picking winners and losers,” he said of the DOB. “And mostly they go after people like me who have shallow pockets.”
He feels that the agency’s auditing process is not an exact science and that different DOB officials interpret situations differently — meaning that depending on who is auditing a job, an architect or engineer could either keep or lose their license.
The agency rarely revokes or suspends privileges, only having done so 10 times in the past 10 years. Voluntary surrenders are far more common, with more than 100 instances in the same time frame. Those who give up their privileges can technically reapply for them, but it’s unlikely that they will be granted, a spokesperson for the DOB said.
In February, Scott Schnall — a registered engineer and one of the most prolific expeditors in the city — lost all of his DOB filing privileges for, among other things, allegedly failing to indicate that certain jobs would change the use, occupancy or egress of the property. Schnall is suing the DOB to have his privileges reinstated.