A recent surge in city construction and an extended period without leadership has left New York City’s Department of Building stretched across a multitude of duties and potentially undermanned. At a Crain’s Business Breakfast Forum on Tuesday, DOB Commissioner Rick Chandler eluded to new duties that were monopolizing his deputy commissioners’ time and could potentially detract from other important duties.

At the breakfast, Chandler discussed the direction of the mayor’s initiatives, as well as new revenue possibilities like charging for the existing pre-consideration process and adding an “after hours” team that would charge a fee.

Despite the potential of additional revenue, however, Chandler’s answers over the course of the breakfast Q&A painted a picture of a department stretched thin.

During the seven months that the DOB operated without a commissioner, the construction industry in New York continued to grow, pulling talent from the Department of Building.
“We knew we would lose some significant talent because there is a demand for talent out there,” Chandler said, adding “obviously, we’re always in recruitment mode.”

The growth of the construction industry has also strained DOB services, specifically the pre-consideration process, which Chandler says has seen a high volume of requests recently. A program designed to help developers sort out the gray areas in building codes before submitting their full proposal, it helps the developers save time and money working on a plan that will immediately be rejected.

While Chandler backs the program, he admitted that the requests are using up deputy commissioners’ time to the extent where they aren’t overseeing some other things as well as Chandler would like.

The “Hub,” as well, needs work. Launched with fanfare in 2011, the hub was a way to electronically submit paperwork and grumblings have since increased about hub’s lack of user-friendliness.

“We know the inefficiencies that we have,” Chandler said, pointing to the technology as the biggest issue, not personnel. Fixing the issues, though, require both time and resources.

At the same time, the city is seeing not just a growth in construction, but particularly a trend toward skyscraper construction, a type of building that warrants special attention by the DOB, because these buildings have special risk.

In addition to keeping up with the thriving construction sector, the DOB is focused on helping execute Mayor Bill deBlasio’s initiatives. The department will oversee regulation on the mayor’s promised 200,000 affordable housing units, will extend regulations to the smaller buildings deBlasio has included in his “Greener, Greater Buildings” program, and must help him find space for an additional 22,000 pre-kindergarten seats by September 2015. The DOB is also heavily involved in the post-Hurricane Sandy “Build it Back” program, providing technical assistants, reviews, permits, and more.

The department has thirty new inspectors ready to graduate from certification in December and January, and has plans to increase its 1100-person workforce to 1200 soon after, making up for the migration out of the DOB when the construction industry soared.

Should the DOB begin charging for pre-consideration services, such a move may decrease the number of developers using the service. This in turn could lessen the stress on the department, giving them more time to fulfill their mandate: “to advance safe construction.”

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