Wednesday, April 23, 2008

GL Analysis: Patty Lancaster is Gone, Now What?

So, now that Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster has resigned, will the Department of Buildings do its job any more effectively or efficiently? Actually, it's highly unlikely without systemic reform. Ms. Lancaster had become a lightening rod for criticism in the wake of the hideous crane collapse in Manhattan last month and the Department had been under more scrutiny than usual. But the issues that have led to 13 worker deaths so far this year and the worst construction accident in New York history are deep, systematic ones that will not be solved by Ms. Lancaster's departure. In fact, some of them may get a lot worse as DOB goes through a bureaucratic shuffle.

On Monday, Mayor Bloomberg said ""I don’t think anybody should be fully satisfied with the Department of Buildings’ performance." The statement was disingenuous at best and self-servingly cynical at worst. The construction boom and DOB's laissez faire attitude have happened under Mr. Bloomberg's watch and the placement of the agency under former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff's purview for most of his administration symbolized the back seat that regulating building took to encouraging development. The city's worst kept secret for much of the last six years has been the fact that DOB was expected not to interfere in major ways with development. If this meant looking the other way while safety, work hour and other regulations were violated with impunity, well, that was a small price for one of the biggest building booms in New York history.

All that having been said, Ms. Lancaster had made positive changes in an agency that suffered bureaucratic dry rot at the hands of the Giuliani Administration. The much-abused system of self-certification of plans was not invented by Ms. Lancaster, nor was a culture of corruption or a horrific lack of resources that continues. It is impossible to talk about DOB's performance while not addressing the budgetary issues that have hobbled it. Even when DOB does try to do its job, it is outgunned and overwhelmed at every turn. If the FDNY was as dysfunctional as DOB and if the Mayor had turned a blind eye to it for nearly two full terms, most citizens would be screaming for his head on a platter. Yet, it is one of the most vital city agencies in terms of protecting public safety and quality of life.

We have said many times, both before and after the crane collapse, that the Department of Buildings is in need of a top-to-bottom overhaul. (Check out our post-crane collapse post on 12 Ways to Fix DOB for a few rough thoughts.) It is starved for resources. There is still blatant corruption. Its lack of responsiveness to citizen complaints in a timely way makes it relatively Kafkaesque to watch. As critical as we have been of Ms. Lancaster--as we believe that the person in charge should take responsibility if an inspector looks the other way while a developer ruins someone's home--we feel that it is too simple and too easy to believe that things will now get better. There is a chance they will get much worse. Unless, of course, in the aftermath of the construction bloodbath taking place in 2008, the Mayor becomes truly committed to deep institutional reform at DOB.

It's important to keep more cranes from taking out city blocks, but it's just as important to keep entire Brooklyn neighborhoods from turning into free-for-all construction battle zones. Top to bottom reform is the only solution for the Department of Buildings.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, top to bottom clean out is what DOB has desperately needed for years. Why did it take so many deaths and horrendous accidents to embarrass Bloomberg enough to take action?

Pat Lancaster is NO saint or sacrificial lamb. She may have had good intentions at times (but what was up with the 'negotiations' involving the developer of the east side crane disaster building and not releasing any information about the talks?).

But in truth she could also be very difficult to work with, secretive, indecisive, quick to blame underlings, the DOB employees remained poorly trained for many years and her agency's performance is quite spotty. And in the end, the agency could not adequately protect the public.

Lancaster's departure is a good thing for the city, and it came too late. A warm good riddance.

Venture to say some of other upper management should go out the door with her. Her old friend, chief cheerleader and lap-dog, Robert LiMandri, is now DOB's acting commissioner. LiMandri is the wiz-kid behind, among other things, the brilliant DOB revelation that spending $400,000 on new uniforms might garner some quick public respect for his agency. Gosh darn, it didn't work. Hey, how about some real salaries to attract competent folks and a little training first, pal?

2:54 PM  
Anonymous incredulous said...

Now that Pat Lancaster's out pounding the pavement, I wonder if she's going to wear those horrible Timberland high-top boots, rolled up gym socks and knee length pleated skirts to job interviews.

Earth to Patty: you're 54, honey.

'Never could understand why she would run around in public like that. I think it was meant to send a message that she was ready to get down n' dirty at a job site. Must look tough at a crane collapse, right?

3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't let the door (or a crane) hit you on the way out, Patty. Finally got what was coming to you, it's just outrageous you stayed as long as you did. Many people have to live with the wreckage you caused. And live with the damage stemming from your vicious, nasty, unethical behind the scenes dealings.

Are you still going to call the cops or DOI on more perfectly innocent individuals you don't like? or people who got in you're way, or who you blame for not getting you out of the recent mess that forced you to resign before you got canned? We know you're good at that.

11:15 AM  

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