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Who would build on Lancaster's shaky foundations?
Matthew Freedman

“I think the buildings commissioner resigned,” said Mayor Bloomberg last Wednesday when the press asked whether he had given Patricia Lancaster the push. It was an opaque statement from a normally plain-speaking figure, but at least it signalled the end of a clumsy and sensitive episode in New York public affairs. Whatever finally triggered her departure, it was clearly time for the head of the NYC Department of Buildings to go.

The enforcing office for all construction and zoning issues in the city has struggled with its complex operations, and its public image, for many years. This is unlikely to change any time soon. Although even Lancaster’s sternest critics accept that she has undone a legacy of inefficiency and alleged corruption stretching back decades, other issues are more pressing. Barely four months into 2008, thirteen deaths have been recorded on New York’s

 

construction sites – already one more than during the whole of 2007, and easily enough to efface any amount of good work done at the department during Lancaster’s six-year tenure.

The disastrous aftermath of last month’s crane collapse on a site at East 51st Street made her position impossible: seven deaths, many more injured, extensive damage to surrounding buildings, and ugly confusion over whether the plans for the 43-storey tower contravened zoning regulations, and ought ever to have been approved.

Furthermore, despite personal dedication and strategic skill, Lancaster was not considered a winning media performer. As a high-profile official, with a difficult public safety brief, in a city gripped by a building boom, this shortcoming alone assured her departure. Last week, the New York press unsurprisingly chose to remind readers of recent blunders and fatalities in the city’s construction world, rather than focus on the Buildings Commissioner’s steady work in strengthening and streamlining the practices of her department. Lancaster has not defended herself effectively, and even Mayor Bloomberg - usually quick to speak up for embattled members of his administration - began last week by saying, “I don’t think anybody should be fully satisfied with the Department of Buildings’ performance”.

With exquisitely ironic timing, this whole mess coincides with the city’s annual Construction Safety Week (April 28th - May 2nd) during which Robert LiMandri, Lancaster’s former deputy, steps temporarily into her shoes. He has certainly started well, ordering a

 

$4 million review of high-risk construction activity across New York as workers put down their tools to hold memorial sessions on Monday. But with a focus this sharp on the city’s building safety, a permanent replacement cannot come soon enough.

The Buildings Commissioner’s job is a tricky hybrid, ensuring the safety of New York’s citizens while enabling the booming development that is central to its prosperity. The next incumbent cannot be seen to pick sides as they take up Lancaster’s place, and will remain under intense scrutiny.

Indeed, there have been reports that the Mayor’s administration wishes to remove the current rule that the Commissioner be a qualified architect or engineer, paving the way for a more PR-aware, inspiring media presence than Lancaster has been. Mayor Bloomberg clearly knows that any new appointee will face harsh challenges. But if it emerges that he would rather employ a communications expert than a construction professional, the Buildings Department could be heading for a whole new dimension of controversy.

Editorial


 
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