NYC Buildings Commissioner Resigns after Mayor’s Criticism

April 24, 2008

Even critics credited Patricia Lancaster for trying to reform New York City’s inefficient, corruption-riddled Buildings Department.

During her six years as commissioner, she rewrote an outdated building code, created online databases for nearly 1 million city properties, stepped up inspections and wrote new safety rules.

But the reforms couldn’t stop a spike in deadly construction accidents, which brought increasing complaints about Lancaster’s agency. She resigned Tuesday under fire from irate residents and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“I felt it was time to return to the private sector,” Lancaster, one of the few Bloomberg administration commissioners to leave in a crisis, said in a statement. “I am proud of the groundbreaking work the department has done during my tenure to root out corruption, increase transparency, overhaul the building code and increase safety for workers and the public alike.”

The 54-year-old Lancaster, the first woman to lead the buildings department, told Bloomberg she would leave a day after he publicly singled out her agency as a problem. Her resignation came after 13 deaths this year at high-rise construction sites, including seven in a crane collapse last month in midtown Manhattan.

Last week, Lancaster acknowledged that the department mistakenly approved construction on the 43-story condominium using the crane. The building was not zoned for a height above 30 stories, she said.

A buildings inspector had found the crane to be safe a day before the collapse; another inspector was arrested on charges of lying earlier about inspecting the same crane.

The public had complained for months about zoning and safety problems with the crane, said Bruce Silberblatt, vice president of the Turtle Bay Association, representing the neighborhood where the crane collapsed.

“The habit of just being brushed off by the Buildings Department is endemic,” Silberblatt said.

Bloomberg, known for fiercely defending his agency heads during crises, on Monday declared: “I don’t think anybody should be fully satisfied with the Department of Buildings. Whether they’ve done everything they can or not is something I’m looking at.”

After accepting Lancaster’s resignation, the mayor called her “somebody who’s dedicated that time to really making a difference in a very difficult world. … She selflessly has worked very hard and I am sorry to see her go.”

He said of the commissioner’s post, “It’s a very difficult job, and hopefully we’ll take and build on what she … has done and take it forward.”

Lancaster’s departure was immediate. Robert LiMandri, the department’s first deputy commissioner, agreed to serve as acting commissioner until Bloomberg names a successor.

Critics said the department has been a mess since the 1990s, when it created a “self-certification” system to streamline the permit process and drastically reduced its inspections staff. Lancaster was credited for raising the number of inspectors from less than 300 to more than 400 in recent years.

“She inherited a corrupt and dysfunctional agency and she brought it a long way,” said Council Member Jessica Lappin, who represents the district where the crane collapsed and where, in a separate incident, a window installer fell nine stories to his death last week.

Louis Coletti, president of the Building Trades Employers Association, said the department had grown stronger under Lancaster’s tenure but that some of the stepped-up inspections may have shut down work at sites for trivial violations that “weren’t necessarily safety-related.”

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