Crying Wolf?

In today’s Sun, Council Member Jessica Lappin says of the 51st Street construction site:

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. To me it seems there should have been heightened scrutiny on the part of the DOB.

In response to which, DOB Commissioner Patricia Lancaster had this to say:

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. 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.

So Lancaster is basically saying here that the community was crying wolf, trying to thwart a legitimate construction project. A look at those 38 complaints does indicate that Ms. Lancaster has a point, but a slim one at best. At the same time, the fact that “many” of the complaints resulted in no action only goes to further show how ridiculous the DOB complaint tracking and resolution system is. Yes, there were a lot of complaints by (I presume) neighbors over a short period of time, but (largely due to failings in DOB’s own inspection system) the agency would be hard pressed to point to a pattern of abuse or unsubstantiated complaints. In fact, the vast majority of the complaints that resulted in “no action” did so because of DOB inaction.

First, the part of the system that did work. Over the course of the past year, there have a number of rather significant site safety violations that resulted in stop work orders. Its not clear from the DOB system if these violations were discovered as a result of complaints that were lodged, or by the diligence of inspectors making their appointed rounds. But either way, there were at least seven stop work orders issued for this project in the past 13 months (that includes the partial stop work order issued on Saturday about an hour before the crane collapse). The earliest was in February 2007 for failure to have a “designated site safety manager”. Another complaint, in August, 2007, said that the work “does not conform to plans”. In that case, the inspector discovered that the “plans do not match the footprint of the existing foundation”. In both instances, stop work orders were issued. Likewise, on 5 October 2007, a complaint was lodged for failure to have adequate fencing/netting at the site, and a stop work order was issued later that day. In the case of Saturday’s partial stop work order, the violations concerned unsafe storage and protection, and had nothing to do with the operation of the crane.

As for the part of the system that does not work, over the course of the past six months, there were also 14 complaints regarding after hours work (which may be the crying wolf part Ms. Lancaster alluded to). But while these complaints may be part of a pattern of harassment by neighbors, they also point up many of the fundamental problems with the DOB complaint system that we have identified before. The complaints themselves are pretty consistent, noting construction activity before 7 a.m. and after 6 p.m. (if DOB had a CompStat-like system, they might have seen this pattern). Typical of how DOB handles after-hours complaints, 11 of the 14 complaints were investigated days later; in two cases, inspectors were able to clear three complaints in one visit, with each of the cleared complaints being at least a day old. One complaint (lodged 1 March) remains uninspected. The last two complaints were inspected the day of the complaint, but as the complaints were lodged shortly before 7 a.m., the inspections probably came well after to alleged violation had ceased to be a violation.

There were also five crane related complaints over the past two months. The most recent of these has already been discussed, and the manner in which it was cleared is apparently in question (the inspector listed as clearing it swears he wasn’t there on the day in question). There were also two complaints lodged on 8 February (both unsubstantiated based on a review of DOB records). On 19 January (a Saturday), a complaint was recorded alleging that the crane was being assembled 18 stories above ground without any safety measures in place for the workers. Five days later, on 24 January, an inspector went to the site and observed that the crane was not working at the time of inspection. Similarly, a complaint about unsafe crane operation on 10 January resulted in an inspection on 11 January, at which point it was noted that “everything checks out fine”.

In all, it would appear that there were a lot of neighbors complaining about the site (or one very disgruntled neighbor). Does that amount to a pattern of people calling in “complaints not based on safety concerns but based on [not wanting the project] in their neighborhood”? Its not clear – the pattern of after-hours complaints is pretty consistent, and there were no inspections conducted that could have debunked them. Likewise, the pattern of crane complaints might have been harassment, but in hindsight they appear to have been mighty prescient. And the project itself did have a spotty safety record – not the worst by any stretch, but 6 SWOs in just over a year is nothing to sneeze at.

In all, of 36 valid complaints prior to this Saturday only 14 were inspected on the day of the complaint. And of those 14, six resulted in stop work orders. In this context, 43% seems to me to be a pretty high rate of SWOs to inspections. (Of the 21 inspections that were carried out after the fact, none resulted in SWOs, and only two resulted in violations.)

Do people use 311 to harass projects and enforce NIMBYism? Without a doubt, and it is a practice that is not only counter-productive but dangerous. But again, in the case of 303 East 51st Street, there is scant evidence that people were doing this. And because many of the complaints were not investigated in a timely manner, DOB has no way of making this case. It is disingenuous at best to say that a high proportion of the complaints resulted in no action, when the lack of action was a result of DOB inaction.

As I have said before, rather than waste resources inspecting “stale” complaints, DOB should write these off as uninspected, and put the property on a 30-day or 60-day watch list. During that time, inspectors would make spot inspections during off hours. If violations were found, immediate SWOs would be issued, shutting down the site for 5 days for a first offense, 10 for a second offense, and so on.