The sleek glass tower at 51st Street and Second Avenue, where a crane collapse last month killed seven, rises 18 stories, nearly halfway to its promise of 43 stories, 180 luxury apartments and panoramic views of the city.
But with work stopped at the site, the city now says that the building's design violated four local zoning regulations and that the Buildings Department should never have issued the original permits in the first place.
Those problems came as no surprise to a group of local residents and politicians: they said they raised questions about the tower's height several times over the past 18 months. But the department did not investigate until January, after the developer's own lender asked for a letter reaffirming city approval.
"You have a Buildings Department that seems more interested in preserving the rights of developers at the expense of citizens and the community," said Bruce Silberblatt, a retired contractor and a member of the Turtle Bay Association who was among the first to complain.
The problems with the building, 303 East 51st Street, come as the Buildings Department is under fire for a spike in fatal construction accidents this year and other high-profile problems. To the department's critics, the mishandled permits also raise sharp new questions about Buildings Commissioner Patricia J. Lancaster, an architect hired by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to modernize the 1,286-person agency.
On Monday, Mayor Bloomberg did little to quell the criticism of Ms. Lancaster, breaking with his customary habit of staunchly defending his commissioners from public criticism.
"I don't think anybody should be fully satisfied with the Department of Buildings' performance," Mr. Bloomberg said. "Whether somebody could have done a better job -- I'm trying to -- whether they could have done a better job I just don't know," he continued, groping for words.
Saying he understood the dangers of construction work and the complexities of regulating the city's thousands of construction sites, he added: "But that's not an excuse."
The city is not threatening to tear down the 51st Street building, and the developer asserts that the zoning problems can be resolved through negotiations. But city officials said some changes to the design were possible.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Lancaster, 54, defended her record, saying that she had modernized the department in the midst of an unprecedented building boom, imposed integrity standards, hired and trained hundreds of employees and made records accessible to the public. Last year, the department issued 9,929 full or partial stop-work orders at construction sites for safety-related problems.
"In order to enact reforms, you have to lay a foundation," she said during the interview. "In order to be able to enforce or bring court cases, you have to have lawyers. You can't have vacancies and no training. And so, we've been building that foundation, as well as getting increased penalties."
In 2002, Ms. Lancaster inherited a department where older records were stored above ceiling tiles, 19 of 24 plumbing inspectors had been arrested on corruption charges, the computers at its Staten Island office crashed almost daily at 3 p.m. and more than 250 positions went unfilled.
Even her fiercest critics say that Ms. Lancaster has had some success in turning around a long-neglected department, putting public records on the Internet, overhauling the city's often confusing and outdated building code, and instituting measures to ensure the integrity of its reviews. But those critics say that the administration has starved the department of resources and focused on spurring construction as part of the economic development, at the expense of safety.
"She has done many things to make the department more effective," said James F. Brennan, a Brooklyn assemblyman who has been critical of the department and is planning a hearing on regulation and enforcement of construction and development for Thursday. "But in relation to what's happening in construction, the department was always behind the curve, and the overriding interest was development."
A spate of fatal accidents has highlighted the department's challenge. This year, there have been 13 fatalities at construction sites in the city, including the seven on Second Avenue, compared with 12 during all of 2007. The victims included a window installer who fell from a condominium tower in Queens when a safety strap failed and a construction worker who fell 42 stories from the Trump SoHo condominium hotel in January.
In another case, investigators found after the 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building near ground zero that building inspectors had failed to detect numerous violations, including the dismantling of a standpipe that would have carried water to firefighters at the top of the building.
The tower on East 51st Street was largely unknown to New Yorkers until March 15, when a 22-story crane collapsed on the site, killing seven and injuring 24 others, while forcing the evacuation of hundreds from their homes.
The planned tower had already been the subject of complaints by local residents and officials. Under questioning last week at a City Council hearing concerning crane safety, Ms. Lancaster stunned critics, community activists and officials with a new revelation: The tower under construction on 51st Street was too tall for its location.
"Wow," responded Councilwoman Jessica S. Lappin, who represents the neighborhood and whose question triggered the response. "You're telling me this building should never have been approved in the first place."
"That is correct," the commissioner replied.
At the same hearing, the commissioner was dismissive of complaints about the tower from local residents. "I think the community doesn't want the building at all," she said. "In fact, that property owner has property rights like anybody else who owns property and can build a building there."
Ms. Lappin was surprised and disappointed, she said, because residents had been raising questions about the height of the tower for some time. In December, a community group, the Turtle Bay Association, received only perfunctory responses to two letters it sent to the Buildings Department raising questions about the zoning, as well as balconies and affordable housing.
Ms. Lappin and Assemblyman Jonathan L. Bing then arranged for a Feb. 19 meeting with Christopher Santulli, the Buildings Department official in charge of Manhattan. Mr. Santulli promised to get back to them and to provide them with the developer's building plans. They are still waiting.
Now, Ms. Lappin said the Buildings Department appeared to be agreeing with the residents. But in an interview on Friday, Phyllis Arnold, the department's deputy commissioner for legal affairs, said that the department had reviewed the zoning and building permits for the project earlier this year in response to a request from the developer's lenders, not the local officials or the community group.
Ms. Arnold said that the zoning for the site allowed for a 33-story tower atop a broad base, not the sheer, 43-story tower for which the developer received approval. In addition, the tower was found to be too close to an adjoining four-story building owned by the developer.
To resolve those issues, she said, the department told the developer, James P. Kennelly, that he must include a space for community use, like a school, clinic or doctor's office, to bring the tower into compliance with the zoning. He was also required to reduce the size of the small buildings that sit in front of the tower on Second Avenue, which are owned by a separate company related to the developer.
Mr. Kennelly said he submitted his initial plans for a full review and received a building permit last October. In response to the department's review in February, he said he submitted a new set of plans by early March.
But, Mr. Kennelly said, he knew nothing about another issue raised by Ms. Arnold: the balconies on his tower intrude over an adjoining property. "At no point did anyone from Buildings have a question or a quandary about balconies," he said.
Ms. Lappin said she had been saddened by the whole affair.
"I'm not sure why D.O.B. is bending over backwards to find every which way for him to build what he wants, as opposed to building what is legal and appropriate" she said.
For her part, Ms. Lancaster said she thought she would be given enough time to finish reforming her department.
"I serve at the pleasure of the mayor, and I have a lot of work to do in the next 619 days," she said. "I took this job to make a difference to the city, and I'm pretty clear that I'm still focused on that."