Six years ago, Patricia Lancaster was tapped by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to head up the Department of Buildings. On April 22, the first woman to hold the position of NYC buildings commissioner resigned, undone by a horrible 2008: within a three-month stretch, a series of high-profile construction-site accidents killed 13 people (compared with 12 construction-related deaths in all of 2007), and resulting investigations revealed a department suffering from oversights, missteps, and other bureaucratic problems.
Within days of Lancaster's departure, city Councilmember Simcha Felder, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Operations, proposed a legislative change that would strip the current requirement that the building commissioner be a registered architect or licensed engineer. (A call to Felder's office requesting comment on the proposal, known as Intro 755, was redirected to Felder's legislative director, Mike Casertano, who noted that change "was submitted at the request of the mayor's office.")
Immediately the New York chapter of the AIA, other local AIA groups, and related professional organizations including the New York State Society of Professional Engineers kicked into high gear, circulating a petition opposing the proposed change and requesting letters and calls to city councilmembers. So far there has been a "huge response," says AIA New York policy coordinator Laura Manville. "We have received about 3,000 signatures."
On May 7, AIA NY executive director Rick Bell gave testimony before the New York City Council's Governmental Operations Committee opposing the legislative change. "The process by which an architect or engineer becomes licensed ... is arduous, arguably even harder than passing the bar exam in our state," Bell said. "You cannot want the person who oversees all aspects of zoning, site safety, and the quality of construction in our city to have borrowed their word choice from management case studies. ... [Y]ou need the real thing."
When asked why New York City legislators were quick to consider opening the buildings commissioner position to nonarchitects, Bell tells ARCHITECT via e-mail, "Legislators are, by and large, lawyers, and lawyers are predisposed and trained to look first at precedent and tradition. Architects and engineers think about the future, acting creatively to make things happen that do not already exist. This is oil and water. ... [S]ome think that architects and engineers can't be managers. Tell that to those like David Childs, Gene Kohn or Mary-Jean Eastman who run multi-national mega-corporations."
The committee, he adds, "was supposed to rubber stamp this 'broadening of the potential applicant pool.' They balked, possibly because we came with mailbags full of petitions and a council chamber full of those taking time off to testify."
Asked what can be changed in the education process to help architects better understand the nexus of government bureaucracy and the building arts and sciences, Bell says, "Politics and economics matter. Projects don't just happen in a vacuum. Make this clear from student days and pound it in through continuing education courses and the civic-minded excitement that comes to architects who, given half a chance, can change the world."
As for calls to dismantle the Buildings Department and replace it with another entity, Bell doesn't think much of the idea. "A bureaucracy is a bureaucracy," he writes, "unless it is inspired by aggressive and knowledgeable leadership. Many capable people work at the Department of Buildings. ... What [is needed are] resources, support from the Mayor, and the knowledge that makes the collective mission a gathering point with the larger community."
AIA NY's Manville says that a vote on the matter has not yet been scheduled, but that the Committee on Governmental Operations could meet again within "a couple of weeks."