How companies game city rules
- Last Updated: 12:17 AM, March 26, 2012
- Posted: 11:30 PM, March 25, 2012
The death of hardhat Juan Ruiz is a sign of how needlessly unsafe and wasteful Gotham’s construction industry is. And a big part of the problem is the way city oversight is a game.
Why do project owners like Columbia University, with reputations to protect, tolerate contractors like Breeze National? Because it’s all-important on these jobs to know how to game city government.
Breeze was doing the demolition of the building that collapsed last week, killing Ruiz. The firm has a history: Its former principal, Toby Romano Sr., was convicted two decades ago of bribing inspectors on an asbestos site.
Sure, Romano’s son, Toby Jr., runs the firm now. But you’d think that, with the building industry in a serious down market, Columbia would have its pick of contractors — and would choose one, or make its project managers choose one, without a hint of a problem.
In fact, developers don’t have much choice. The contractors who get the jobs in the demolition industry have a big asset: men (and a few women) who know how the city really works. That is, how to game the system — often (although not always) legally, or close enough.
Demo “experts” know:
* How long it takes for complaints to result in inspections.
* What kind of “innocent inaccuracies” to fill out on forms to get special permits.
* How long they can get away with violating low-grade rules on things like noise and hours restrictions. (Hint: Often, as long as it takes.)
Shady contractors have the upper hand for two reasons:
One, they know the city doesn’t do effective enforcement on minor violations.
The Department of Buildings should pick up on what the NYPD has learned about the importance of getting serious about minor crimes. People who don’t respect “small” laws likely won’t respect the big laws that save lives, either.
That’s true of contractors, too. So, for instance, inspectors should revoke permits for work that can’t be done without violating the noise code.
To clean up the demolition industry, the city should also force contractors to be more productive in their use of city-owned land. Right now, demo crews exploit a valuable city resource — the public streets — with impunity.
The industry’s cash cow isn’t full-building tear-downs but “internal demolition” — the tear-up of office space to allow the new tenant to rebuild it to fit his needs.
Walk around the streets of Manhattan any evening, and you’ll see carting trucks parked outside office buildings for hours and sometimes weeks and months on end. This “demolition” work involves low-level employees of well-placed contractors removing the contents of skyscrapers a half cubic yard at a time, grinding up the debris streetside in the carts.
This is like washing One World Trade’s windows with a baby-bottle brush. There’s got to be a better way.
We can get a shift in the demolition industry if we let market forces push them to get more efficient. The city needs to stop giving them use of the streets for as long as they choose.
Force carters doing demolition work off the streets — into towers’ internal-bay space. Because buildings need that space for their deliveries, this rule would push developers to demand carters who work better and faster.
You can’t set up a pop-up store in a traffic or loading lane — and contractors shouldn’t be allowed to do their business there, either.
Not enough well-ventilated bay space? The city should be miserly with its street space, then — not by charging big fees (developers are used to paying through the nose) but by limiting time. Restrict streetside carting to 16 hours a week per building, no exceptions and no transfers and no accumulating unused time.
Got a big building? Maybe you should invest in more indoor workspace for big, heavy trucks.
An owner without enough bay space for internal demolition will have move-ins and move-outs happen slowly — and so the rent income would go down — unless the owner finds better carters or builds indoor space for this work.
When a demolition contractor can no longer “demolish” a building’s contents half a cart at a time by treating a Manhattan street like the Jersey Shore, it will have to find a better way — or someone else will.
That would give good actors in this business a fairer chance. Right now, the bad (including the corrupt) crowd out the good.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.Follow @NYPostOpinion