Building a Safer City

Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to rewrite, tighten and otherwise modernize the city’s maze-like web of building rules and regulations. It’s a good idea, and the City Council would be well advised to move quickly on a proposal that has been years in the making.

The current building code was last revised in 1968. As a piece of bureaucratic literature, it is as easy to follow as your average French deconstructionist text—although the code is far more useful. Since that last revision, new imperatives have arrived on the scene. Municipalities want more environmentally friendly buildings and better-built structures. What’s more, in the post-9/11 age, cities understandably want skyscrapers to have better emergency features, like impact-resistant stairways and elevator shafts.

The Mayor’s plan addresses these concerns, and more. The proposed new code is part of an overall effort to confront worries about safety and construction methods that came to light after the Twin Towers collapsed. But even if 9/11 had never taken place, surely the time is right to simplify and make comprehensible a notoriously complicated set of regulations that only adds to the cost of building in New York.

One of the most intriguing features of Mr. Bloomberg’s plan is its green component. The new codes would mandate greener heating and cooling systems and require roofs to be painted in a reflective color. Other financial incentives will help make a new generation of New York buildings much more efficient and much more representative of the 21st century’s awareness of the health of the planet.

No less important are the proposal’s mandates for better fire protection, including a requirement that buildings taller than 55 feet, and which have more than 30 occupants, have an automatic sprinkler. Sometimes, when officials rewrite the rules, we learn to our amazement what isn’t in the old laws. The sprinkler requirement, as proposed, is not already law. It should be.

Of course, all the regulations in the world cannot prevent disasters, such as the several recent fires in buildings that had been cut up, illegally, into tiny cubbyholes that hardly deserve to be called apartments. One such fire took the life of a child in Queens on Monday. Working towards safer buildings should also mean vigorous inspection of those already standing, and aggressive action against those who endanger the lives of occupants and firefighters alike.

It is a rare occasion, indeed, when both the Fire Department and the Real Estate Board agree on changes to the building code, but such is the case with Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal. Tension between the city’s firefighters and the city’s real-estate interests date back to the days when the Dutch ran the city and built wooden homes—complete with wooden fireplaces—next to each other. It took several disasters, like the great fires of 1776 and 1835, along with the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and 9/11, to get the Fire Department and the Real Estate Board on the same page. That speaks well of Mr. Bloomberg’s initiative.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn has been cagey about her opinion of the plan. Although she supports a revision of the building code in theory, she hasn’t been willing to throw her support behind the Bloomberg plan. That’s fine—the Council ought to review the plan carefully and without prejudice. In the end, however, members no doubt will agree with the FDNY and the Real Estate Board. This is a vision worth implementing, and sooner rather than later.