Friday, May 2, 2008

The Hard Hat Passes to a New Commissioner

By ROBIN FINN The New York Times

Please pardon Robert D. LiMandri his temporary amnesia. He is not yet two weeks into learning how to stay afloat in the fishbowl he has occupied since his hasty promotion to acting buildings commissioner. As evidenced by the abandoned Starbucks-and-sidewalk-fruit-vendor spread on his desk, he also forgot to eat lunch — not so wise for a member of the perilously skinny minority.

This being Construction Safety Week in New York City, where construction accidents since Jan. 1 have already claimed the lives of more workers (13) than occurred in all of 2007 (12), Mr. LiMandri is making a valiant attempt to appear unfrazzled while having his commissioner chain jerked in several directions simultaneously. He was appointed acting commissioner of the chronically dysfunctional — and sporadically corrupt — Buildings Department by the Bloomberg administration on April 22, the same day the administration urged and accepted the resignation of his boss, Patricia J. Lancaster.

Ms. Lancaster, whose tenure commenced in 2002 with a mayoral mandate to rewrite the city’s incomprehensible building code, was undone by a series of construction accidents linked to improper safety inspections culminating in a crane collapse in March that killed seven people.

“The inspector lied, and that really peeves me off,” says Mr. LiMandri, 43, who grew up on Long Island and lives in Hollis Hills, Queens, with his wife and two sons. (He takes perverse pride in being one of just two Yankees fans in his Mets-rabid neighborhood.) His first order of business is to uproot the liars and the lax from his inspection staff. “If we catch you, we’re going to show you the door,” he says. He is empowered by an administrative realignment that groups the Buildings Department under the same public safety mantle as the Police and Fire Departments. “We need to make it clear to everyone at the construction table that we are like the P.D. and Fire, and we need to regulate like them,” Mr. LiMandri says.

HIS new obligations include, for starters: repairing a department in which an inspector failed to investigate a complaint about the instability of a crane that 10 days later collapsed at an East Side building site and killed seven people; ratcheting up compliance by adding 20 specialized engineers to reinspect construction sites throughout the city; reassuring the public that it is safe to stroll the sidewalks of a city that has come to resemble a construction beehive.

Visiting the site of the crane collapse at East 51st Street was, he says, horrific. “It was so devastating,” he says. “Sometimes you go to these events, and frankly” (“events” is a LiMandri euphemism for accidents, just as “frankly” is his go-to adverb) “your stomach, it’s fine, but at others it’s not. This one was almost surreal.” Mr. LiMandri refused to say whether Ms. Lancaster was a departmental scapegoat for the accident. “I feel bad about it,” he says of her exit, “but let’s say we’ve opened a new chapter. I’m in a bit of a position.”

But because he considers himself a mover and shaker who needs to feel needed in the civic scheme of things (why else leave the private sector for public service after earning a master’s degree in real estate at New York University, in addition to his degree in mechanical engineering from Clarkson University?), he deems himself glad to be in it. “We’re trying to move an industry to a different place, not just an agency,” he says of his plan to inundate his department and the city’s construction industry with the message that safety will not be sacrificed to the demands of development.

Not on his watch, or his watch will be short-lived, and he has designs on removing the word “acting” from his title, a maneuver that involves the City Council’s approval to waive a requirement that the commissioner be a licensed engineer or architect. It is his contention that after six years with the department, he is right for the job. “You don’t have to be the biggest guy on the job site to make a point,” he says. “I can be really, really intense.”

“Doing our job alone isn’t going to reduce accidents,” he adds. “And I’m not going to take a hit for what the industry doesn’t do well.” Which is? To obsess over safety like it obsesses over building. “This is an industry that thrives on every square foot and making every building as big and as quickly as possible. And what happens when you do things quick?” Accidents happen. Over on his bulletin board is the spreadsheet of a disaster that didn’t wait to happen.

He points a floppy white cuff (perhaps he plans to grow into his oversized shirt) at Exhibit A, a poster labeled Crane Collapse Buildings Status. A red triangle marks the original location of the toppled crane that rocked the department, cost Ms. Lancaster her job, and shut down scores of construction sites where tower cranes and mobile cranes were in use.

“This is the bane of my existence,” he says. “You should come look at this.”

He looks at it every day.

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