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Friday, January 3, 2014

The Department of Buildings as Obstacle to Livable Streets

The New York City Department of Buildings (DOB) has been negligent in its responses to complaints for a long time. This can be critical when they continue to ignore complaints about illegal conversions that become fire traps for residents and firefighters.* DOB's failures to respond to complaints also causes problems for public streets and sidewalks that seriously erode quality of life in some neighborhoods, and can even become safety hazards in some instances.

Hopefully the new mayoral administration will address this problem. It is a clear example of the "Tale of Two Cities" narrative that de Blasio pressed while campaigning; nobody would believe that the City would ever tolerate somebody fencing off part of a public sidewalk to create a parking space on the Upper East Side, yet far too often the City has done nothing about it in places like The Bronx. Below are a few clear examples that illustrate the types of problems DOB has been ignoring that are destroying the livability of streets in some neighborhoods.

Public Sidewalks Appropriated for Private Parking

Despite repeat complaints about outrageous takings of public sidewalks to create illegal parking spaces, DOB has done nothing to correct the problems. Instead, the records show that inspectors dismissed the complaints with bogus reports.

At 3276 Reservoir Oval East in The Bronx, a fence was constructed across the public sidewalk to create an illegal parking space. The first complaint was received by DOB on September 2, 2008. Later that month, a DOB inspector dismissed the complaint, claiming to be unable to find a driveway.

This same location was reported to DOB again on April 1, 2010. After DOB never got around to checking out this second complaint, the department eventually dismissed it without an inspection. In fact, DOB has an official policy to dismiss old complaints without inspections when they just haven't bothered to get around to them.

DOB received yet another complaint on June 20, 2013. According to the DOB's system, it still has not been inspected. Apparently the failure to inspect the prior complaint did not increase the priority for inspecting another complaint about the same problem. Instead, there is a suspicious failure to respond yet again.

The sidewalk at 3059 Bainbridge Avenue in The Bronx has also been appropriated for private parking. A fence has been installed on the sidewalk enclosing a space for two vehicles, which use the pedestrian ramp in the crosswalk as a driveway. It has been reported to DOB on multiple occasions, but no effective action has been taken to fix the problem.

The first complaint was made on June 16, 2008. On first inspection, DOB actually issued a violation for encroaching on the sidewalk. For some undocumented reason, the Environmental Control Board dismissed that violation. Despite the mystery dismissal, there is absolutely no indication that the space is private property. A review of Digital Tax Maps from the Department of Finance, as well as the Borough President's street maps and a reading of the metes and bounds on the property's deed in ACRIS leave little doubt the entire area appropriated for this parking is public property intended for a sidewalk. DOB has made no indication to community members that they have even checked the property lines.

Even if the property were privately owned, there are other violations. Both the use as parking and the height of the fence are illegal.

DOB has used the zoning as a basis to issue violations, but the penalties are ineffective. The violations DOB has issued were for using a side yard for parking contrary to zoning. These violations carry fines of $500 each time DOB and the Environmental Control Board get around to it. Since the space is being used for two parking spaces, in a neighborhood where parking spaces run well over $100 per month, paying the fines is much cheaper than finding a legal parking space.

Even after this case was publicized by Streetsblog and after receiving inquiries from the local Council Member, they are still playing around by issuing minor violations that cost less than renting a parking space.

DOB has also failed to issue violations for the height of the fence. While fences are allowed a maximum height of six feet, the portion with the gate is well in excess of that maximum. A DOB inspector dismissed this complaint, despite the clear and easily-verified evidence.

When pressed on this case, DOB claimed it does not forcibly remove anything and only issues a vacate order for egress or life safety violations. It is impossible to believe that the City is powerless to remove a fence that has been installed on its own property!

Obscuring Views of Traffic Controls

DOB has not only allowed scaffolding to obscure the view of a stop sign, but failed to take corrective action after receiving a complaint. The photo below was taken on Mosholu Parkway South and Marion Avenue in The Bronx.

It should go without saying that sidewalk sheds must not obscure the view of a stop sign! An initial error by DOB in approving plans may not be a huge concern, depending on the cause. The engineer or architect for the private project who submitted the plans to DOB may not have accurately identified the location of the stop sign. Or perhaps the sidewalk shed was not installed correctly according to the plans by the contractor. It would be unreasonable to expect DOB to field-verify every set of plans they receive.

Nonetheless, once the problem was brought to their attention, it was recklessly negligent of basic public safety to dismiss the complaint without correcting the hazardous condition. When they received the complaint, DOB's sole response was to simply dismiss the complaint with a note that the scaffolding had the appropriate permits (fortunately, DOT came out and quickly relocated the sign to address the problem).

A Pattern of Neglect and Hope for Change

These are only a few of the cases in an ongoing pattern of neglect. Unfortunately, DOB is unwilling or unable to provide a basic level of follow-up on even the most serious complaints about public space issues under its purview. It is unclear what is causing this problem. It might just be more of the corruption that had long plagued DOB (are people bribing inspectors to leave their parking?). Perhaps the inspectors are inept, have no work ethic, and are not properly supervised. Maybe it's a symptom of grossly understaffing a critical function, resulting in too many things falling through the cracks. Whatever the cause, we can only hope that the new administration takes hold of the situation and ensures that DOB responds to complaints in all parts of the city in a way that effectively protects safety and the integrity of our public spaces.

* It is understood that there are limitations on the ability of building inspectors to inspect the interiors of homes when residents do not provide access. None of us want to live in a society where inspectors force their way into your home simply because a neighbor made an allegation. Nonetheless, there is a clear pattern of building inspectors ignoring clear evidence of illegal conversions; when a two-family house has three mailboxes and a door bell (improperly wired) on the basement door, there should be ample evidence either to issue the violation without gaining entry or to seek a search warrant. Instead, building inspectors (who may or may not have actually knocked on the door at all) close out complaint after complaint claiming they were unable to get inside.

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