Fatality at Trump site stirs debate over safety

New York

The site that will become Trump SoHo, a condominium hotel in the sleekest area of downtown Manhattan, is quiet. Workers and the normal traffic are kept out by blue police barricades. The area stands as a silent memorial to the death of 53-year-old Yuri Vanchytskyy, who plunged 40 floors to his death from the half-finished building a week ago.

The cause of the accident is under investigation, but the New York Department of Buildings said it was clearly related to a framework that held wet concrete and somehow gave way. Authorities have closed the site indefinitely until contractors can guarantee it is safe.

This scene sharply contrasts with the one in September, when real estate guru Donald Trump, who partly owns the development, held a red-carpet ceremony that drew an ocean of reporters and protesters.

Dozens of residents held signs such as, 'Don't comb over here' in reference to the tycoon's famous hairstyle and chanted 'Trump must go' as Mr Trump boasted he had 3,200 prospective buyers for the 400-plus condos, including people from China. At the time, only 12 storeys had been finished.

Mr Trump even expressed his appreciation to neighbours in his signature way. 'I'd like to thank all those protesters for making this project so successful,' he said.

'That was typical Donald Trump arrogance,' said Sean Sweeney, president of the SoHo Alliance, a community organisation that led the fight against the project 'It was attempted as a bad joke and it has come back to kick him in the pants.'

Accidents and protests are far from unique to Mr Trump's projects. In New York, where at least 200 major building sites are active, accidents have occurred at many projects. Serious injuries and fatalities at sites 15 storeys or higher numbered 57 last year, 73 per cent up from a year earlier.

But thanks to Trump SoHo's high profile, the spotlight on the accident doesn't seem to be fading as fast as it has on many others. Elected officials have called on the city to strengthen safety inspections and have even demanded the ousting of the Department of Buildings' commissioner.

A safety summit held by the department and the Building Trades Employers Association, the largest trade group, will be held tomorrow, and a public hearing by the city council is set for early next month.

One topic to be addressed is whether the rapid pace of construction demanded by developers has anything to do with the worsening safety record.

'The developer wants the project accelerated, offers incentives to do it. Add to that the tremendous volume of work,' Louis Coletti, president of the trades association, said.

And, in the case of Trump SoHo, it is not only the US$3,000 per square foot condo price that provides an incentive for fast work. The SoHo Alliance and other groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the building in an area where the zoning code allows no residential buildings. The case could halt the development.

'I've never seen a building go up as quickly as this one,' said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Forty-two of the building's planned 46 storeys were up by the time of the accident - and that for a building that broke ground last May.

Neither the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor the trades association has a timeframe in their safety codes.

However, despite the renewed political focus on the issue, it may take something as grim as a recession to lower the casualty rate as developers are forced to delay or cancel plans. That looks like it is just around the corner, so development by Mr Trump and others will remain strong this year - but for next year all bets are off.

Tomorrow: London