Anyone who's ever tried to plaster two bricks together in New York has horror stories about the city's Building Department. In Manhattan two years ago, for instance, plumbing inspections were backed up for 16 weeks, so a business otherwise ready to open had to sit idle, awaiting inspection of its rest rooms. And the wait for a final occupancy permit was so long that many developers simply moved people in before getting one.
But Mayor Giuliani's buildings commissioner, Queens civil engineer Joel A. Miele, has speeded things up radically: today the wait for plumbing inspections in Manhattan is down to 12 days. Miele's most important innovation is "self-certification." Licensed architects, engineers, plumbers, and electricians can now obtain building permits automatically, without submitting their plans to the department. "The fact that these people possess licenses certifies they will be building according to code," explains department spokesman Vahey Tiryakian. The Building Department spot-checks 20 percent of self-certifications; a developer who fails loses the ability to self-certify and may eventually lose his license altogether.
The administration has proposed legislation to the City Council that would allow self-certification for final occupancy permits as well. While self-certification isn't allowed for large construction projects needing special permits or land-use reviews, most of the 35,000 permit applications the department receives each year involve simple alterations to existing structures.
Miele has also introduced "one-stop shopping" for home builders, who can go to a single borough-based office and get all the permits they need. "The Building Department has people there who can make decisions on the spot," says Tiryakian. Miele has done all this while cutting staff from 758 employees when he took office to 595 now.
Miele's next step is to begin computerizing the department's records and drawings, making access easier for builders and contractors, who eventually may even be able to order construction permits online. "The administration is trying to work with the people who want to build in the city rather than against us," says Al Gerosa, chairman of the New York Building Industry Council. "That's a big change."