What I learned at the Department of Buildings

Earlier in June, I wrote for The Wall Street Journal about the demolition of the Kentile Floors sign. Scaffolding had appeared in front of it, and another blogger had discovered that the Department of Buildings had issued permits for removal of a rooftop object.

What no one knew, however, was what the owner was allowed to do. The permit referred to an illustration, but none appeared on the virtual filing. My research would require a field trip.

The next morning, I went to DOB’s Brooklyn office near Borough Hall to locate the visuals. For some reason, I thought I could waltz into a huge government complex right at 8:30 if I showed up right on time. I was wrong; there was a huge line out front, one that snaked around the columns of the building.

Department of Buildings line

Not everyone was there for Buildings, of course, but many were. The line on the Eighth Floor stretched the length of the long hallway.

DOB has a “take-a-number” system that makes the process at the DMV look simple. Everyone waits in a single line, then receives a specific code depending on the reason for coming. Those looking up physical filings received “J” plus a number; the architects around me, clearly old hands at this, said things like “gimme a C” and “B me”.

(Little did I know this whole rigmarole was superfluous for me, but this is a post on my learning experience, not expressly a how-to.)

A “J” ticket in my possession, I went to the room with the past filings, a large chamber with windows reminiscent of those for bank tellers. A couple of large boards called out numbers; mine appeared within a minute. I had to fill out a form with the filing number.

An employee took a stack of requests to the back room, and brought out a large pile of folders. Most looked new, while a couple dated from almost a century ago. He put those in the window, and returned my slip in the “can’t find it” box in his window.

The employee directed me to the customer service area — where I picked up my ticket — and told me I might find the renderings on a computer there. It appears to be the only public computer with full filings. I found it, and my heart leapt a bit as I saw a drawing of the Gowanus icon.

"Full demolition of Kentile sign."

“Full demolition of Kentile sign.” (Check out Curbed for a full slate of photos)

To get a printing, you have to pay some serious cash, starting at $8 a pop. And even though this particular scan was in pdf format, they couldn’t just hand me a copy on letter size. It had to go through the official printer, a monstrosity returning your desired item on architect’s paper. One of these things could cover a wall in my apartment.

Just one problem: the printer was broken. The security guard (the supervisor was off somewhere else) told me he had no idea when it’d be back up.¬†Instead, I just took a few photographs of the computer screen, and based my piece on those.

I later called the DOB to see why there were so many issues — and why I had to go there in the first place. The press secretary told me only projects subject to public review (such as zoning variances) have their drawings published on the external internet.

As for why I couldn’t just get an 8 1/2-by-11 of the renderings, she was unable to tell me. (She promised to look into it, but has yet to reply.)

There you have it — a long morning in a municipal building, and a few lessons learned. Chief among them: if you’re new to a place, don’t be afraid to ask what the heck you need to do in the first place. I would have saved plenty of time had I known to go straight to the internal computer.

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2 Responses to What I learned at the Department of Buildings

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