The City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee unanimously passed legislation earlier today that will remove the requirement that the commissioner of the Department of Buildings be a licensed architect or engineer. Though the new legislation still mandates that either the commissioner or the first deputy commissioner be a licensed professional, a number of industry groups opposed the move, which is expected to pass the full council at today’s meeting.
At a press conference, Speaker Christine Quinn said the legislation would provide needed flexibility in the selection of future commissioners. “We all know the most important thing is to have someone who knows the issues of the agency but also someone who is a good manager,” Quinn said. “This allows the most latitude in finding the best manager to run, as we see every day, a very, very important department while still maintaining a level of technical expertise.”
The bill was part of a major package of reforms proposed in the wake of the recent crane collapses that led to the resignation of the former commissioner, Patricia Lancaster. Because Lancaster was herself a licensed architect, a number of professional organizations, including the local chapter of the AIA, said architects and engineers were being blamed for the shortcomings of other professionals and the department itself.
In response to the committee vote, which passed 7-0, the AIA released a statement that said, “There are some who have insisted that any department can be run with good management skills, and that those skills are more important than mere credentials. However, this is not about tradition. This is all about professionalism, and the fact that the person heading the Buildings Department must be able to make the tough decisions as the final authority on matters of zoning, site safety, and building construction. Having a deputy who is a licensed professional is simply not the same thing.”
Executive Director Ric Bell, who recently wrote about this issue in AN, is in Richmond, Virginia, attending the annual AIA CACE meeting, but he did send an email to express his frustration. “Having an architectural or engineering license demonstrates that the commissioner knows how buildings are built and reassures those walking past construction sites that an important knowledge base is there at the highest level of authority with the department," Bell wrote.
Quinn told AN that by ensuring that one of the top two administrators at the department was licensed, the council had actually reaffirmed the importance of professionals within the organization, especially since some people had urged their removal altogether. “I don’t think there is any attempt by this legislation to scapegoat architects or engineers or any professionals,” she said. “We don’t think architects and engineers are bad managers. We just think there are other places to also look for good managers.”
Asked whether Robert LiMandri, the acting commissioner who has been with the department since 2002 but is not a registered architect, would now be named full commissioner, Department of Buildings spokesperson Kate Lindquist directed comments to the mayor’s office, which did not immediately respond. Should the bill pass the council, it will require Mayor Bloomberg’s signature, but considering he proposed the stauncher bill that eliminated any requirements, his approval is expected.
The council was also due to pass two bills related to construction site safety, one that would require contractors pouring 2,000 cubic yards of concrete or more to hire on-site safety inspectors—in order to prevent accidents like the one earlier this year at the Trump Soho—and another that requires detailed site safety plans for any “major” project, which Quinn described as “essentially larger than ten or twelve stories.” This would include a specific safety training regimen for workers.
There were two other bills of note, the first of which will penalize stores that run air conditioners while leaving their front doors open. The cold air spilling onto the street may lure in customers, but it also wastes energy and taxes the grid, according to council members, leading to power failures.
The other bill mandates the creation of a decennial waterfront plan. “We are basically a city of islands,” Quinn said. “For a long time, we have turned our back on them. Now that we are returning to the water, we must balance our use between recreation, transportation, economic development, and residential property, where appropriate."
Update: The final vote on the commissioner bill was 41-8.
Update: As predicted, Mayor Michael Bloomberg just announced his plans to permanently promote LiMandri to commissioner of the Department of Buildings. In the city’s release, LiMandri thanked the mayor and the council for their continued support, adding, "The Department’s mission of public safety requires a commitment from every one of us, including property owners, builders, construction workers and the members of my dedicated staff, and we must combine our efforts to ensure millions of New Yorkers are better protected than ever before. Short-cutting safety in the name of development is not an option, and anyone who puts people at risk will not be tolerated. Now let’s get to work."