After façade deaths, city considers using drones for building inspections

Housing committee held a hearing on requiring DOB to study drone feasibility

After two recent façade-related deaths, city officials are mulling the use of drones to inspect the safety of thousands of buildings.

The City Council’s Committee on Housing and Buildings held a hearing Monday on a bill that would require the Department of Buildings to study the feasibility of using unmanned aircraft to examine exterior walls. Under the legislation, the DOB would need to submit a report by June 30.

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DOB Commissioner Melanie La Rocca testified that the agency supports the bill and is open to the idea of using technology to enhance safety. But she also stressed that she didn’t want to put façade inspectors out of a job.

“This department is keenly aware of the fact that there is certain value to having visual, hands-on inspections by humans who can feel and touch the material,” she said.

Committee chair Robert Cornegy Jr., who is the co-sponsor with Council member Ben Kallos, clarified that he is not advocating for the full replacement of human inspectors, saying he envisions professionals and drones working in tandem.

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“I don’t believe there’s one or the other,” Cornegy said. “I think we can expedite, get a closer look in a shorter period of time.”

The study would also explore whether drones could help cut down on the use of scaffolding and sidewalk sheds throughout the city. Kallos noted that there are more than 9,000 active sheds in the city, which collectively span the distance between Central Park and the Canadian border. (According to DOB, the active sheds span nearly 2 million linear feet.)

In December, following the death of architect Erica Tishman, Brooklyn City Council member Justin Brannan indicated that, at the request Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, he would introduce drone inspection-related legislation, Gothamist reported at the time. Any legislation will need to change a 1948 law that effectively bans drone use in most of the city.

Tishman was killed by a piece of terra-cotta which fell from 729 Seventh Avenue. Several months before the incident, the DOB had issued a violation related to the façade, but the owners didn’t make the necessary repairs or install a sidewalk shed or netting to protect pedestrians. The following month, Xiang Ji was killed by a piece of building material that fell from the Golden Shopping Mall at 41-28 Main Street in Flushing.

Following Tishman’s death, the DOB ramped up façade enforcement and introduced rule changes that increased requirements for exterior wall inspectors and increased certain penalties. The DOB also inspected 1,331 façades that had been flagged for safety issues. The agency found that 220 of those properties didn’t have adequate protections for pedestrians. La Rocca said on Monday that only 68 owners subsequently installed required protections, so the agency is sending contractors (at the owners’ expense) to the remaining 152 properties to remedy the unsafe conditions.

The DOB is also pursuing criminal cases against owners who have had sidewalk sheds in place for longer than 10 years, La Rocca said. A DOB spokesperson subsequently specified that the agency started pursuing criminal cases against seven building owners in late 2019. The agency could soon start targeting buildings with sheds that have been in place for at least nine years.