The Real Deal New York

At the desk of: Rick Chandler

The DOB commissioner on construction safety, fighting corruption and running marathons
By Kathryn Brenzel | August 01, 2017 11:00AM

Rich Chandler (Photos by Emily Assiran)

Nearly 12 years after leaving his post at the New York City Department of Buildings, Rick Chandler has found himself home again. Mayor Bill de Blasio named Chandler — who headed up agency operations in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn in the late 1990s and early aughts — DOB commissioner in 2014. After his first DOB tour, Chandler did stints at the city’s Department of Homeless Services and at Hunter College. But his current gig is by far the most high-profile. In the last decade, the agency has dealt with everything from fatal crane construction collapses to bribery scandals. Since his return to the DOB — which has 1,500 employees and a budget of $184 million — the 56-year-old Nebraska native has ramped up enforcement against so-called “bad actors” who violate the city’s construction codes and zoning resolutions. Since July 2014, the department has taken disciplinary action — through fines, suspensions or revocations of filing privileges — against at least 72 construction professionals. The DOB is also responsible for greenlighting every construction project in the city and deals with megadevelopers from Related Companies to small, family-run shops in the outer boroughs. Chandler’s office is on the seventh floor of 280 Broadway, a landmarked building that’s been shrouded in sidewalk sheds since 2011 — the irony of which is not lost on the commissioner. Chandler moved to the city in the 1980s to attend graduate school in civil engineering, first at Polytechnic University and then at Columbia University. He currently lives in Manhattan Valley on the Upper West Side. He has two adult daughters — one lives in the city, and the other is attending SUNY New Paltz.

Sculpture

This sculpture was a gift from one of the department’s plumbing inspectors, who worked under Chandler when he served as the DOB’s borough commissioner. The staffer — who was on Chandler’s roughly 75-person team, which also included engineers and architects — used pieces of bowling balls to create the three-pronged, plant-like work of art.

“Not your father’s DOB” mouse pad

Chandler’s predecessor, Robert LiMandri, left behind his mouse pad as a not-so-subtle reference to the DOB’s past issues with corruption. Shortly after Chandler came back to the agency, 50 people — including 11 DOB employees — were indicted in a bribery scheme. “Sometimes, [people sway] our staff to make the poorest of choices and [engage in] quid pro quo types of relationships,” he said. “Unfortunately, that happened early on in my tenure. And it was a challenge for every one of my predecessors.” 

Tums

The commissioner is a self-proclaimed “big coffee drinker” and has a Keurig machine no more than two feet from his desk. He averages four cups a day with no frills — just black. And, perhaps as a direct result, he keeps a bottle of Tums handy.

Football

Chandler studied civil engineering at the University of Nebraska from 1980 to 1984. He also was a linebacker for the school’s football team, the Cornhuskers. While he doesn’t play football anymore, he said he’s still an avid fan and checks up on his former team almost every day.

Podium

Before Chandler speaks in public, he practices at a podium in his office, and the assistant
commissioners critique him. One of the more serious occasions at which he spoke publicly was a press conference following a crane collapse that killed a pedestrian in February 2016. Shortly after the incident, Chandler and the mayor announced a series of new safety regulations.

Sign

Chandler picked up this sign from a construction union rally in January. He was on his way back from a City Council hearing, where he had just testified about a package of construction-safety bills — the most controversial of which became a lightning-rod issue between union and nonunion shops. A new version of the bill was expected to be hammered out by press time.

Buildings jacket

Chandler wears his DOB jacket whenever there’s an incident at a construction site. Unfortunately, the commissioner has had many opportunities to do so: In the past two years, the city has seen more than 30 construction-related deaths.

Regulatory book

At a conference last year, Chandler received “The Character of Harms” by  Harvard University professor Malcolm Sparrow. The book explores how officials should address corruption, crime, poverty and other issues. “Our top goal is safety on a construction project, and the harm [unsafe conditions] might bring to the public and the workers,” he said.

Running shoes

Chandler has competed in five marathons, three in New York and two in Chicago. He usually runs marathons with a college friend. Last year, they ran a half-marathon in Dublin. Chandler said he doesn’t really have time for other hobbies. “As I was warned before taking this job, there wasn’t going to be much of a personal life,” he joked.