Bad builders behind bars

The Brooklyn Paper
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So far this year, new development in Brooklyn has sent at least two construction workers to an early grave.

Then there are the scores of damaged walls, cracked foundations and broken water pipes associated with builders bent of building big at any price.

At last week’s meeting of the Madison-Marine-Homecrest Civic Association a former special prosecutor for the New York City Department of Buildings told neighborhood residents fed up with overdevelopment that it’s time to slow down and put crooked developers where they belong – in prison.

“When the boom outpaces enforcement then it becomes a problem,” New York Administrative Law Judge John Cox said at the Kings Highway Reformed Church on Quentin Road.

Thirteen people have been killed on construction sites throughout the city in the first four months of 2008 – most of those deaths occurring in the so-called outer boroughs.

But according to Cox, if only a few bad developers were actually put behind bars, dangerous and damaging developments would soon dissipate.

“Once you get a few high profile cases then deterrence kicks in,” he said.

Back in the 1980s when Cox was fresh out of law school and first charged with chasing down lawbreakers, building violations were adjudicated in criminal court rather than in the Environmental Control Board of today.

Despite a few problems with the system back then that failed to differentiate between egregious offenses and those significantly less severe, Cox said that prosecutors were able to win a few major victories.

That didn’t last long, however, before the powerful real estate lobby began to cry foul and pressured the city to back off. That’s when Cox decided to move on.

To deal with major building code violations today, Cox suggests returning cases to the criminal court, charging the most serious offenders with felonies and allowing private citizens to bring actions against shoddy developers under the public nuisance law.

“Charge them with a felony,” Cox told neighbors. “Let them go to Rikers Island.”

The aforementioned remedies could be accomplished with a simple “stroke of the pen,” according to Cox – if the political will was there.

“In the final analysis you’re going to have to hold your council people’s feet to the fire,” he said.

Next week on May 29, the embattled Department of Buildings is expected to hold public hearings on its proposal to begin certifying site safety coordinators responsible for supervising demolition and construction of 10 to 14 story buildings. The hearing will be held at 2 p.m. inside the Department of Buildings headquarters at 280 Broadway.

“Once somebody goes to jail, you’ll find these site safety coordinators take their jobs more seriously,” Cox said.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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