The Manhattan construction crane collapse that killed at least four people Saturday and has left three others missing is stepping up pressure on the city's buildings commissioner, Patricia Lancaster, who is moving quickly both to reassure the public and deflect criticism toward the construction industry.
The weekend's incident is one of a spate of high-profile accidents in recent months, including a fatal fall at the Trump SoHo building in January, a building collapse in Harlem this month, and a fatal wall collapse last week.
At least one elected official, City Council Member Tony Avella, is calling on Ms. Lancaster to resign.
In an interview with The New York Sun yesterday, Ms. Lancaster said that data from new safety programs the department is undertaking indicate that the developers, architects, and engineers have to raise safety standards.
"It seems to us that the result of our special enforcement program yields that the construction industry needs to pay more attention to safety," Ms. Lancaster said. "We're going to be all over the construction industry and force them to be safer."
The commissioner said that the spate of recent high-profile accidents partly reflected a building boom in the city. "We're issuing approximately 78,000 permits per year and construction is all over the city, so the number of incidents, the percentage, is relatively small," she said. "I think citizens can feel safe with construction in their areas."
Ms. Lancaster has already drawn the ire of city tabloids, with the Daily News penning a series of editorials in recent months criticizing Buildings Department officials as "incompetent" "boneheads" and writing that "the department, led by Commissioner Patricia Lancaster, lost control of safety standards" and is a "dysfunctional mess."
According to city statistics released last fall, 29 laborers died in work-related accidents from September 2006 to September 2007, a 61% increase over the previous year. The number of safety violations at high-rise construction sites also nearly doubled between November 2006 and November 2007. The city has been undergoing a historic construction boom.
"This is just the latest incident," Mr. Avella, who called for Ms. Lancaster's resignation previously after a fatal accident at the Trump SoHo construction site, said yesterday. "How many people have to die before the mayor realizes that the Department of Building, which is ultimately responsible for construction in this city, is in total chaos?"
A spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg, Stu Loeser, said Mr. Avella's resignation call was off base. "Such comments indicate a total lack of understanding of the situation, and we're not going to dignify such foolishness with a response," Mr. Loeser said.
Although not going as far as Mr. Avella in calling for a resignation, several elected officials interviewed yesterday said Saturday's accident fits a pattern and requires changes to the city's building safety standards.
"I think enough is enough," Council Member Alan Gerson said yesterday. "Between what we've been through downtown with the Deutsche Bank and then the Trump building and then yesterday, we need to change the process in which we assure construction site safety in this city."
Mr. Gerson said that he had raised the issue of crane safety with Ms. Lancaster at a recent oversight hearing.
"I specifically asked, 'Do we have specific regulations to prevent them from falling?'" he said. "I was dissatisfied with her response, because it clearly left too much discretion to site developers."
Mr. Gerson said that safety could be improved by requiring independent site safety coordinators at construction projects who are not hired by the site's developers. That, he said, would prevent conflicts of interest.
Another City Council member, Lewis Fidler, who sits on the buildings committee, said the DOB needed to "work on competence."
"A number of us have been pretty critical of how seriously they are inspecting job sites like this and their safety record," Mr. Fidler said. "Every time you turn around there's a wall collapse, a crane falling over, there's just too many things."
Council Member Jessica Lappin, whose district includes the townhouse destroyed on Saturday, said yesterday that she and various constituents had already complained to the buildings department about some issues with the construction site, raising concerns for her that there might have been missed opportunities to catch potential safety hazards.
"This is a site that was not under the radar screen, this was a site where the community had contacted the DOB, officials had contacted the DOB," Ms. Lappin said. "To me it seems there should have been heightened scrutiny on the part of the DOB."
Ms. Lancaster said complaints from community members should be taken in context, but that the accident's cause was being investigated. "There were 38 complaints, many of which resulted in no action, and when that happens we look at whether the community wanted the building in the first place," she said. "Sometimes people call in complaints not based on safety concerns but based on concerns about the project, which they don't want in their neighborhood."