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New Exceptions in Construction Shutdown Keep Thousands of NYC Sites Open

Construction of a new Target on 82nd Street in Elmhurst was still going on during the coronavirus epidemic, April 22, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

By Rosa Goldensohn, THE CITY
This story was originally published on 4/22/20 by THE CITY

The list of “essential” construction projects and permitted work has ballooned sixfold since Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a virtual construction shutdown last month, Department of Buildings data shows.

Some 4,936 job sites are now allowed to be worked on, up from about 800 on April 3, according to the Buildings Department.

Among them: hotels in Manhattan and Brooklyn, a new Queens Target, and, as the Columbia Spectator first reported, the future home of Columbia University’s business school.

The greenlighted projects also include renovation work on rental buildings under an exception for a “sole worker,” raising concerns for tenants.

‘A Joke’

Under a revision of its original shutdown guidance, the state has expanded “essential” building work beyond primarily infrastructure projects, hospitals and affordable housing.

As long as ground already has been broken, construction now can also proceed on any type of business that’s allowed to continue in-person operations during the state’s coronavirus-driven “pause.”

That broader list includes hotels, restaurants, convenience stores, banks, appliance stores and storage facilities, among other businesses. Public and private school construction is also permitted.

One worker on a Manhattan hotel project fumed, saying his bosses were treating the pandemic like “a joke.”

“To make the hotel essential, they might as well open every job, because that hotel is far from essential,” he said. “That hotel is deemed essential while we are deemed expendable.”

The city’s rules for “essential business” construction appear somewhat narrower than the state’s.

Work on “essential businesses” can proceed only “if it pertains to alterations of existing buildings and has been permitted by the department prior to April 15, 2020, the city guidance says.

DOB notes that the vast majority of the 35,000 sites that were ordered shuttered in March are still closed. But some local residents say they’ve been shocked to see work going forward on a wide-ranging set of long-term projects while the pandemic still claims hundreds of lives per day.

‘Exploiting Loopholes’

The far-from-complete Target site in Elmhurst, also slated to contain a Starbucks and a Chipotle, will eventually house some type of “ambulatory diagnostic treatment or healthcare facilities” above the 23,000-square-foot big box store, city filings show. So the Department of Buildings is allowing construction to continue.

Patricia Chou, a member of the grassroots community group Queens Neighborhoods United, which has long opposed the development, said that while a medical office may be in the offing, the core of the planned facility is still a shopping center.

“Our primary concerns are that they are endangering workers at the site and exploiting loopholes to complete this project,” she said.

A rendering of the planned Target in Elmhurst Photo: Courtesy of Target

The construction work takes up space on 82nd Street and Baxter Street, which are routes to the emergency department entrance of coronavirus-slammed Elmhurst Hospital, Chou noted.

Solo Acts
Renovations also go on at residential buildings, under the exception that allows one-person jobs.

One resident at an Upper East Side rental building said his landlord’s continued remodeling work on apartments puts his family and other tenants, many of them elderly, at risk for a less-than-pressing reason.

“Unless it’s a hot water issue or a heating plumbing issue, this is not the time to have any extraneous people in the building,” said the resident, who didn’t want his name published for fear of retaliation by his landlord.

Delivery people may not enter the building’s elevators, but construction workers do. Meanwhile, the building’s doorman is currently “fighting for his life” on a ventilator, the tenant said.

“Every time I take an elevator down to the basement and I run across a construction worker, that’s a potential interaction that I do not need to be having,” he said.

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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