Sunday, March 20, 2011

Times Magazine takes look at architect Scarano: NYC Department of Buildings was overwhelmed during boom, and relied on self-certifications

In a fascinating article headlined The Supersizer of Brooklyn, the New York Times Magazine explores the curious case of now-disgraced Robert Scarano, who became the architect of choice for developers looking to capitalize on the outer-borough building boom, especially in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Greenwood Heights, and Park Slope's Fourth Avenue.

Scarano's specialty: he found ways to build not only eye-catching modernist designs, but to work around the zoning code, building loft mezzanines that qualified as storage space, thus adding secret space to a more cramped (on paper) apartment.

(Ahead of the curve, the late Bob Guskind wrote about Scarano a ton.)

Self-certification

Clearly, gentle city procedures, allowing architects to proceed on the honor system, enabled Scarano's tactics. The Times reports:
Scarano boasted that he knew every nook and cranny of the zoning code, and few thought to question his expertise. He had a genial relationship with the buildings department, and he usually submitted his designs under the city’s self-certification program, an honor system instituted to save money during the Giuliani administration. This meant that, in the vast majority of cases, buildings were being constructed with the go-ahead from just one person: Robert Scarano. In neighborhoods all over the city, though, concerned citizens began to throw up obstacles.
Cracking down

Finally, however, Scarano faced a backlash, as the Times reports:
In early 2006, after a meticulous review, the city filed a series of civil charges against Scarano in an administrative court, among other things claiming that he “made false or misleading statements” in submissions for 25 self-certified projects. Most of the violations concerned mezzanines. The buildings department had just promulgated new guidelines, holding that if the mezzanines had more than five feet of headroom, they could not count as storage space. A few months after the case was filed, the city settled the charges in return for Scarano’s giving up his right to self-certify. “I believe strongly and until today that my interpretations and my decisions were founded on things that were permissible,” Scarano says, contending that many of his audited buildings were eventually cleared by examiners.

Some wonder, if what he was doing was so blatantly illegal, why Scarano met with approval for so long. Robert LiMandri, the commissioner of the buildings department, said he had “no information that indicates that there was any sort of corruption” and that no employees were disciplined. Rather, he contended, the department was overwhelmed by a “frenzy” of building activity, and it relied on Scarano’s representations, which were often voluminous and confusing. At the time, the department had no way to punish him for lying. In 2007, though, state legislators, inspired by complaints about scofflaw architects, passed a law that allowed tough sanctions. “We really needed this stick to be able to say to people, look, there are no more cat-and-mouse games,” LiMandri said. The department created a new Special Enforcement Unit, focusing on Scarano as an initial target.
(Emphasis added)

Perhaps the Buildings Department's posture toward Scarano was not dissimilar to other departments' posture toward Atlantic Yards: they relied on representations they couldn't, or wouldn't, examine closely.

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