Sunday, June 1, 2008

Construction Deaths Hound Mayor Bloomberg

The International Herald Tribune

NEW YORK: It has become the signature image of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's transformation of the economically fragile city he inherited in 2002: the towers that punch skyward throughout New York, gleaming testaments to the billionaire businessman's management of an unwieldy urban bureaucracy.

Throughout his tenure, Bloomberg has taken particular pride in the construction boom, promoting it as the product of his pragmatic approach and the application of high-tech yet common-sense solutions to the problems of government.

But the deadly crane collapse that killed two people and injured another on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on Friday morning is now threatening to tarnish that legacy. It was the latest in a series of construction-related accidents - including a crane collapse in March that killed seven people - that have left New Yorkers uneasy, with a growing concern that Bloomberg may have let high-rise construction proliferate without adequate oversight.

Despite the administration's recent efforts to improve construction safety, including replacing the commissioner of the Department of Buildings, there are signs that residents - even those who have generally viewed him favorably in the past - are running out of patience with Bloomberg.

Leonard LaRusso, a resident of the building that was hit by the falling crane on Friday, was blunt. "I'm not going anywhere until I see the mayor," he said. "This is his fault."

Bloomberg has struggled to rebuild confidence in his administration after a troubling spike in the number of fatal construction accidents this year, and he was less than welcoming on Friday to Governor David Paterson's promise of a state investigation.

Increasing that pressure, Representative Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat whose congressional district includes the site of the accident on Friday, said she would ask the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to inspect major construction sites, adding that she was "appalled that the city's inspection procedures are so lax that we could have another massive crane collapse."

Bloomberg responded angrily during a news conference to the suggestion that the Department of Buildings had failed to ensure public safety. "I don't think there's anything wrong with the DOB - DOB didn't crash; it was the crane that collapsed," Bloomberg said. "Keep in mind that construction is a dangerous business, and you will always have fatalities."

Bloomberg has rezoned vast swaths of the city to accommodate bigger, more densely populated buildings, encouraging the construction of millions of square feet of office space, hotel rooms and housing. Over all, the number of construction permits for new buildings or major renovations issued by the Department of Buildings has soared 23.3 percent over the past five years.

The deaths threaten the long-held view of Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire, as a talented manager, political observers said. And his high-profile removal of Lancaster has made him even more directly accountable.

Bloomberg's accomplishments during his time in office include devising the popular 311 information and services phone line, gaining control of the school system, helping push down smoking rates and smoothing knotty racial tensions.

Bloomberg appeared to acknowledge the tension between the vibrant economy that had brought him surplus after surplus, allowing him to expand popular programs while banking money for future expenses.

"Nobody wants this economy to grow more than me," he said testily on Friday. "But we're not going to kill people."

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