A city effort to fast-track fire safety inspections for public facilities and small businesses came to include hulking office towers, luxury high rises and even a Midtown sushi restaurant owned by one of New York City’s most influential real estate developers, according to a list of “prioritized” projects obtained by Gothamist.
An internal spreadsheet from June 2022 shared between fire department officials and City Hall shows roughly two dozen projects that were bumped to the front of the line for fire safety inspections amid a pandemic-induced backlog of tens of thousands of properties. The list, which is now part of a federal probe into the Adams campaign, includes expedited inspections for a homeless shelter, a preschool in Laurelton and a facility for kids entering foster care, as well as high-rise luxury buildings owned by some of the city’s most prolific developers.
Though the Adams administration has denied the existence of a list of prioritized inspections, three fire department officials confirmed the existence of the list and it was mentioned in a lawsuit filed last spring against the department. Fire department officials spoke to Gothamist on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution or termination for speaking publicly about the internal document.
“We had people waiting patiently who didn’t have access [to City Hall], who booked months ago and we had to cancel because we had to do one of these high-priority projects,” said one of the officials.
The list began under then-Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2021 to help small businesses facing monthslong waits for inspections from the fire department, according to a March lawsuit filed against the department by former Fire Prevention Bureau Chief Joseph Jardin and six other high-ranking officials. They claim they faced retaliation from current Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh for speaking out against “corruption” on behalf of well-connected developers.
But under Mayor Eric Adams, the list has morphed into “a mechanism to force FDNY to permit politically connected developers to cut the inspection line,” the lawsuit stated.
The priority project roster is now among the various documents being investigated by federal authorities who are probing the Adams administration’s campaign fundraising tactics, according to Jardin’s attorney, Jim Walden. He told Gothamist that his client was questioned by the FBI over the internal document and efforts to fast-track approvals for a Turkish consulate building. The list is spurring questions about how well-connected developers ended up benefiting from a tool meant to cut red tape for small businesses and public projects.
“No amount of dodging can change the facts: a weekly list allowed friends of City Hall to cut the FDNY inspection line, and it had important contributors and other ‘friends of City Hall’ on it,” Walden said.
The federal probe appears to be focusing, in part, on allegations that fire department inspectors faced pressure to sign off on incomplete fire prevention systems at a Turkish embassy building in Midtown ahead of an opening ceremony attended by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, according to the New York Times. The opening occurred a few months after Adams won the Democratic nomination for mayor and contacted then Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro about speeding up inspections, the Times reported.
An FBI spokesperson declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. A spokesperson for the Southern District of New York, which is handling the investigation, also declined to comment.
Neither Adams nor his campaign staff have been publicly accused of wrongdoing.
Earlier this month, federal agents seized Adams’ phones and electronic devices, days after the FBI raided the home of Brianna Suggs, a key campaign fundraiser. Agents have also targeted at least one other aide, a member of his mayoral transition team and a Brooklyn-based construction company whose executive has fundraised for Adams.
Adams said Tuesday that he never heard of the “DMO list.” In the lawsuit, Jardin called the document the “Deputy Mayor of Operations list” in reference to the City Hall administrator who oversaw the fire department in the de Blasio administration.
City Hall spokesperson Charles Lutvak said the so-called DMO list does not exist. He did not respond to additional questions if City Hall previously kept a list, or how certain projects ended up on it.
On Friday, Commissioner Kavanagh acknowledged the document’s existence, telling NBC “the list has always been shared widely with a large number of people and has always been about city interests.” She told the news outlet that she was not aware of efforts to pressure fire chiefs to fast-track approvals.
But Walden, who is representing high-ranking fire officials in their lawsuit, questioned the narrative coming out of City Hall.
“A DMO list by any other name still smells rotten,” Walden said.
The spreadsheet obtained by Gothamist was labeled “MASTER LIST – PRIORITIZED sites” and includes projects set for fire alarm, range hood and other inspections.
A Georgian restaurant in Hells Kitchen, an Alamo Drafthouse movie theater on Staten Island and the address of a new Taco Bell in the Wakefield section of The Bronx also appear on the internal document.
Other projects include the Ritz Carlton Hotel on West 28th Street, a mammoth office tower at 50 Hudson Yards, a Long Island City luxury tower built by the Durst Organization, a luxury apartment complex on West 38th Street owned by the firm Rock Rose and JoJi Restaurant, a swanky sushi spot located in the One Vanderbilt office tower owned by SL Green, New York City’s largest commercial landlord. The City first reported on the Joji fast-tracking, which came a year after SL Green’s top executive hosted a fundraiser for Adams’ mayoral bid.
City Hall did not respond to a question on Saturday about how a sushi restaurant rose to the same priority level as a preschool or facility for foster kids.
The Ritz Carlton, Hudson Yards and Rock Rose did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. Durst spokesperson Jovana Rizzo said the company never contacted City Hall about inspections at the Sven development but spent months trying to get inspections completed before opening in 2022.
“We worked with our contractors and consultants to call the fire department, and, in the end, it did not help, keeping nearly 1,000 units of desperately needed mixed-income housing off the market and increasing costs,” Rizzo said.
Some affordable housing developers and community advocates are asking why luxury projects would be prioritized.
“How do some of these projects get to move to the front of the line?” said Barika Williams, executive director of the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, whose members can face significant inspection delays. “The type of projects that should be fast-tracked are projects that are important for our civil sector and public good, like libraries, daycares and affordable housing.
“We do want to give them the greenlight so that neighborhoods and communities can have them,” she said.
Inspection delays have hampered project openings and remain a point of contention among fire department staff and city leaders. Long wait times can sink businesses that rack up debt while waiting to open, Adams said Tuesday.
The COVID-19 pandemic only deepened the fire department’s backlog.
The number of completed fire safety inspections by uniform fire personnel decreased from around 47,000 in the 2019 fiscal year to about 28,000 in fiscal year 2021, according to an annual report on city agency performance. The number increased to about 33,000 last fiscal year, but still falls short of pre-pandemic norms.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Deputy Mayor of Operations Meera Joshi said the inspections take an average of about 14 weeks to complete — down four weeks from last year
Kavanagh has backed efforts to turn over some inspection responsibilities to help business and residential projects open more quickly. But firefighter unions denounced those plans as dangerous and have instead urged the city to hire more staff to tackle the backlog.
FDNY spokesperson Amanda Farinacci said “the fire department’s top priority is to keep New Yorkers safe, and every decision we make is with fire safety in mind.”
In a statement, Farinacci said the priority list criticism “simply seems like an attempt by someone who is unsuccessfully suing the FDNY and Commissioner Kavanagh, and who has a financial interest in undermining the fire commissioner and smearing her good name.”
But three veteran fire officials familiar with the list of priorities said the directive to streamline projects forced the department to cancel or bypass other scheduled reviews, including instances where applicants had been waiting for months.
The three fire department officials said that in the past, the department frequently fielded requests to move up inspections on behalf of developers or property owners with relationships to City Hall. But the priority list was the first time the requests were part of a standardized form with specific instructions to drop other scheduled inspections.
Top of the heap
All three officials specifically recalled the inspection at One Vanderbilt, marked as “Plan (FA)” — for fire alarm system — on the list shared with Gothamist.
The inspection allowed the restaurant to open in September 2022 — “an achievement that coincides with SL Green’s 25th Anniversary as an NYSE listed company and the second anniversary of the opening of One Vanderbilt,” said SL Green CEO Marc Holliday in a press release marking the event.
SL Green did not respond to questions Monday about how the restaurant ended up on the priority list
Instead, SL Green spokesperson Jeremy Soffin said in an emailed statement that the company was “proud to work closely with City Hall and many relevant city agencies to deliver One Vanderbilt and its enormous economic development impact during the pandemic.”
At the time, SL Green had hired influential real estate lobbyist Jacqueline Williams, president of 99 Solutions LLC, city lobbying records show. Williams has long had close professional ties to Adams and fundraised for him during his successful campaign for Brooklyn borough president in 2013. She did not respond to phone calls or an email.
In the lawsuit, Jardin said the list was created “at the behest of the Real Estate Board of New York,” also known as REBNY.
REBNY denied the claim, but said it has long urged the city to streamline approvals and commit more funding to the fire prevention bureau, including in testimony to the City Council in March 2021.
“REBNY never asked the city to create the so-called DMO List,” said REBNY spokesperson Sam Spokony. “When REBNY members face delays in the inspection process, it is common for them to request our assistance with city agencies.”
At least one person whose company appeared on the June 2022 list said she had no idea how it got on there.
Gotham Realty CEO Sarah Cohen said she tried for months to speed up the timeline for inspections at a building she leased to Walgreens near the Queensboro Bridge. Cohen said she started making headway in June 2022, right around the time Walgreens took over the lease.
“I’m not Vornado. I’m not SL Green,” she said. “If I want stuff to move smoothly I don’t have a henchman or a lawyer. The only way I can get stuff done is by being a squeaky wheel and I squeaked and squeaked and squeaked.”
Her company is a REBNY member, but she said she never thought to contact the trade group for help. Instead, Cohen said she contacted the business group Long Island City Partnership for help lobbying the city. Cohen finally got her inspections completed in August, she said.
“I didn’t know anything about being on the list,” she said. “I’m grateful if it made a difference.”