Buildings Commissioner Melanie La Rocca defended her agency's practices and highlighted new policies at a city council hearing on Monday, Crain’s reports. The hearing came after a wayward sheet of plywood killed Xiang Ji in Queens earlier in January, and after a falling chunk of terra cotta ended Erica Tishman's life near Times Square last month.
La Rocca maintained both tragedies remain "under investigation," but assailed the owner of the building involved in the former tragedy, who had failed correct a hazardous condition despite tangles with her agency. The commissioner stated that the landlord had challenged the department's finding and delayed hearings, preventing corrective action.
"We believe that the process we had at that moment, which we are adding to and will continue to make more robust, identified a problem," La Rocca said. "We issued the violation and ordered certain actions to be taken that were not."
Owners of the Manhattan building where Tishman died have filed a lawsuit against the owner of two neighboring buildings, claiming the landlord refused to grant access to crews to repair outstanding facade violations.
La Rocca talked up a "sweep" of 1,331 buildings the DOB had undertaken since, which found 220 structures that lacked necessary pedestrian protections. Of those, she reported 68 had complied, while the city would deploy contractors to do the required work at the owners' expense.
Further, she noted a new rule that set to go into effect before the next round of mandated facade inspections will increase penalties for owners and obligate them to post safety reports on the facade in their buildings' lobbies. Inspectors will return to the sites of violations after 60 days, and again after 30, to ensure compliance.
"These actions will hold owners accountable both for maintaining their facades and keeping pedestrians safe," she said. "The failure of building owners to maintain their facades or to keep pedestrians safe is not acceptable."
Manhattan Councilman Benjamin Kallos noted that facade reviews involve the use of binoculars, which he dismissed as "19th-century technology." He and Brooklyn Councilman Robert Cornegy, chair of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, urged La Rocca to consider their proposal that the DOB conduct such examinations with drones, which are currently forbidden. La Rocca, however, would only say that the notion was "worth looking at."
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