The pressure from Mayor Eric Adams’ team to fast-track an FDNY inspection of a 77-story office tower at Hudson Yards triggered the cancelation of fire inspections for a dozen non-VIP New Yorkers, including an overcrowded, racially diverse public school in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights.
In the spring of 2022, 50 Hudson Yards landed at the top of an internal City Hall list that pressed the fire department to expedite inspections for favored big developers such as The Related Companies (which built Hudson Yards), Vornado and SL Green, as well as corporations such as Amazon and Meta opening up huge offices in New York City.
Some of these VIPs contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Adams’ 2021 campaign or financially supported programs championed by the mayor. Others heavily lobbied top mayoral officials, including Adams’ former chief of staff, Frank Carone, to win favorable treatment on their pet developments that wound up at the top of the list for fast-track inspections.
The FBI and Manhattan federal prosecutors are examining the list and looking at whether the big money applicants were given favorable treatment by City Hall in exchange for their financial support of the mayor, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
The spring 2022 effort to speed up inspection of 50 Hudson Yards came from two prominent people: Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer, and former Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, by then an executive at The Related Companies, according to an internal FDNY email obtained by THE CITY.
The email is one of about two dozen obtained by THE CITY in which FDNY top brass struggle to address the pressure from City Hall to move up inspections for favored developers and businesses. Since the existence of the federal probe of his fundraising surfaced in public last month, Mayor Adams has repeatedly insisted no such list existed and that all applicants seeking inspections — big or small — were treated the same.
But the emails make clear that in the spring of 2022, the department canceled already scheduled inspections at 12 sites that weren’t on the VIP list in order to move up the inspection of 50 Hudson Yards, a “top priority of City Hall.” All but three of the canceled sites were in Brooklyn.
In order to accommodate City Hall’s requests to expedite Hudson Yards, the FDNY had to cancel the scheduled April 12 inspection for PS 112 Lefferts Park Elementary School in Dyker Heights, an email obtained by THE CITY show. The department had been set to check the fire alarm system at a newly built annex for the school, which is in a district with severe overcrowding problems.
PS 112 serves a highly diverse student body of more than 700 that is 38% Hispanic, 34% Asian and 27% white. In the 20220-23 school year 70% of the students were eligible for free or reduced fair lunches, one indicator of poverty.
Building department records indicate that the fire alarm system at PS 112’s new annex was ultimately inspected by the Fire Department and approved by DOB in February 2023, but only after the system’s drawings were altered “for compliance with FDNY notice of defect” related to “carbon monoxide and heat detection.”
Other out-of-luck applicants included three small multi-family row house conversions in Sunset Park and the Brooklyn Independent Middle School in Fort Greene, a private school with sliding tuition scale to accommodate lower-income families.
Manhattan buildings that lost their spot in line included a multi-unit rental building on Greenwich Street in the West Village, a 10-story mixed-use building on Hudson Street in Soho, and a building at E. 22nd St. owned by Baruch College.
“As the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Operations have said, this administration has a systematic effort to speed up construction and permitting called ‘Get Stuff Built.’ And as they’ve said, FDNY is doing fire alarm inspections 33% faster this year, and DOB is completing construction, plumbing, and electrical inspections each within 4 days,” said Charles Lutvak, a spokesperson for the mayor in response to questions from THE CITY.
Fire Department officials declined to discuss the cancellation of PS 112’s inspection or any of the others that were canceled.
PS 112 administrators and parents did not respond to THE CITY’s request for comment Saturday.
‘The List Is Getting Longer’
Allegations that the mayor’s office was placing connected players on the list for expedited FDNY inspections first surfaced in a lawsuit filed by several FDNY chiefs alleging they were demoted or pushed out by Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh for complaining about the list and other issues.
In the lawsuit, Joseph Jardin, the former head of the Bureau of Fire Prevention, which handles fire alarm system inspections, said the list — which began under former Mayor Bill de Blasio and continued under Mayor Adams — came to favor “friends” of City Hall.
The internal emails show top fire officials becoming increasingly concerned about favoritism once Adams took office. At one point, Deputy Chief Brian Cordasco noted that under Adams, the types of inspections City Hall wanted expedited had grown.
“Prior to January 2022, only projects involving Plan Examination were being asked to get expedited from the [Commissioner’s] office,” he wrote in May 2022 to his colleagues in the Bureau of Fire Prevention. “Today there is a mix of Plan examination, Fire Alarm Variances, Fire Alarm Inspection, Rangehood, Schools, and DOB/FDNY coordination issues…and the list is getting longer.”
In October 2021, Cordasco and other top officials discussed obtaining feedback from City Hall on their priorities for speeded-up inspections. The list, the department officials wrote at the time, appeared to prioritize “schools, homeless shelters and affordable housing,” consistent with the original intent of de Blasio’s program to “cut red tape” for small businesses and homeowners.
That same month, for instance, the top seven buildings on the list for expedited inspections were all in NYCHA developments.
But by as early as January 2022, shortly after Adams’ inauguration, the push by connected applicants to get to the front of the FDNY inspection line had already kicked off.
The expedited list that month, obtained by THE CITY, includes a restaurant called Swingers inside a soon-to-open Virgin Hotel near Herald Square. Internal emails state that Swingers “needs approval from FDNY by late February in order to apply for their TCO (temporary certificate of occupancy) before the liquor license expires.”
The source of the request to the FDNY was George Fontas, a registered lobbyist who hosted a Sept. 28, 2021 fundraiser that raised nearly $26,000 for Adams’ mayoral campaign, of which $12,000 was eventually returned. His firm, Fontas Advisors, currently has about two dozen clients paying him to lobby the Adams administration, records show. Fontas did not return THE CITY’s calls seeking comment.
In February 2022, another well connected development managed to wriggle their way onto the list.
That month, lobbying firm Kasirer LLC emailed then-Buildings Commissioner Melanie La Rocca seeking an expedited FDNY review of the former James A. Farley post office building on Eighth Avenue. The building was run by The Related Companies and Vornado Realty and was to be leased to Meta, formerly known as Facebook. The companies needed the department to sign off on the building’s fire alarm system to obtain a required certificate of occupancy.
La Rocca, a holdover from the de Blasio administration, forwarded the lobbyist’s email to then-Acting Fire Commissioner Kavanagh, writing, “This needs to be a top priority.”
That same month, then-Bureau of Fire Prevention chief Jardin began voicing his concerns about the direction of the “cut-red-tape” initiative, writing that Bureau of Fire Prevention brass “should raise the issue of the scope/purpose of the CRT meetings and the notion that aiding small business was the focus of that effort.”
By March, Deputy Chief Cordasco noted the expanding number of VIPs on the list had grown by a “tremendous” amount, adding, “This is going to take a while to complete.”
Assistant Chief Kevin Brennan responded, “All these requests on this list cannot come before everyone else. It’s bad customer service to the public at large who for the most part do not have the influence to move their projects along.”
“A compromise is needed,” he added.
A Top 7 List
On April 5, 2022, Luis Martinez, special assistant to Commissioner Kavanagh, emailed the Bureau of Fire Prevention the commissioner’s “Top 7 List,” with Hudson Yards, the Ritz Carlton hotel, Meta, and Amazon’s new headquarters on Fifth Avenue the first four in line.
In response, as THE CITY first reported, Cordasco warned in an April 7, 2022 email to his colleagues that to expedite the inspection of the 77-story office tower at 50 Hudson Yards, it would be “necessary to cancel at least 15-20 inspections.”
“This is not only extremely difficult for the FAI [Fire Alarm Inspectors] but extremely unfair to the applicants who have been waiting at least 8 weeks for their inspection,” Cordasco wrote. “Industry opposition will include questions as to why certain projects are advanced while others need to be canceled and pushed back?”
In an April 8 email first reported by THE CITY, Deputy Chief Kevin Murphy made clear why this was happening: “The request to expedite Hudson Yards comes from the Office of the Fire Commissioner as a top priority from city hall.”
Besides Kavanagh’s Top 7 List, another player that rocketed to the top of the list was SL Green. In the spring of 2022 the mega developer needed FDNY sign-off on the fire alarm system in JoJi, a high-end sushi restaurant it was trying to open in the basement of One Vanderbilt, its premiere Midtown office tower next to Grand Central Station.
The per-person cost for a meal at Joji is $375, not including drinks, tax and tip. But in a letter to the FDNY’s Cordasco pushing for a speeded-up inspection, a representative of the restaurant called it a “small business venture.”
As THE CITY first reported, SL Green’s CEO Marc Holliday raised $30,900 for Adams’ 2021 campaign in August of that year, after Adams had won the primary and was widely expected to win City Hall. SL Green was trying to open the restaurant by mid-September 2022 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the date it was first listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
The restaurant opened on time.
This story was published by THE CITY on December 3, 2023.