Thursday, January 13, 2011

Construction Casualty Adds to Infamous Developer's Shoddy Record

By David J. Harvey and Eric Yun

A building collapsed Monday at a construction site in Elmhurst left one worker dead and three others injured.

Department of Building officials said a wall at 84-16 Queens Boulevard, approximately 18 feet high, was being reinforced with concrete when it collapsed, trapping four workers. FDNY and EMS responded to the scene.

The four injured workers were rushed to Elmhurst Hospital, where one man went into cardiac arrest and died, FDNY officials said. The other three men were reported to be in stable condition.

“It was absolutely terrible,” witness Jim Demetrio said to CBS. “The workers were trapped and other workers were trying to get them out.”

The New York Daily News reported that the victim was 27-year-old Humberto Sanchez, a father of three.

“He was a good man,” said brother Cornelius Sanchez to the Daily News. “He was a hard-working man.”

The Department of Buildings said it is still investigating the accident, and a stop work order has been issued, with additional violations expected.

However, the property owner is no stranger to DOB fines.

The department’s records show the family of notorious developer Tommy Huang owns the property. Tommy Huang and his son Henry have been cited numerous times throughout the years for improper development.

After he built his first five-family home in Flushing in 1979, Huang began a whirlwind rise to lead development in the area. In 1986, he spent $3.4 million on the RKO Keith’s Theater, announced plans for a shopping mall, hotel and movie house, then spent the next four years on a slow demolition. In 1990, the city revoked his permits when the theater’s landmark staircase was razed. Then a fire started in the locked building—an arson that was never solved.

Former State Senator Leonard P. Stavisky, who passed away in 1999, was an Assembly- man when he first locked his sight on Huang. Stavisky recalled a story about Huang to the New York Times in 1997. It was 1982, and Huang had showed up at his house with an architect to dispute Stavisky’s opposition to one of Huang’s construction projects.

According to the Times article, a Molotov cocktail burned down a restaurant and several other shops at Huang’s proposed site that same year. After the fire, Huang raised his offer and the bank sold him the property. Stavisky demanded response to an ''arson for profit'' ring, but no one was ever charged.

Huang was later charged for allowing 10,000 gallons of heating oil to leak into the building. He pled guilty in 1997, was fined $500,000, sentenced to 5 years probation and ordered to clean the spill.

The State Attorney General sued Huang in 1999 for irregularities at a Flushing housing complex and Huang was forbidden to sell condos and co-ops in New York.

In 2002, he sold the RKO for $12.1 million at a nearly 400 percent profit, and his building projects continued.

Eleven houses Huang built at 34th Ave. and Union St. in Flushing were approved by the DOB as three-family homes the same year he sold the RKO, but Huang built them so close together, the Fire Department was unable to gain access. The Board of Standards and Appeals pulled the certificates of occupancy in 2005, and eight buyers sued.

Huang has since faced charges that structural problems at an abandoned project on Grand Avenue in Elmhurst twice caused the evacuation of the adjacent Ladder Co. 136 firehouse in 2005 and 2006, and that his project manager at the site, Thomas Cottone, ignored a stop-work order and was in possession of a forged instrument for altering a building permit.

On Mazeau Street, Huang demolished a garage without a permit—he simply applied after the fact and his demolition application was approved. The DOB also issued permits to subdivide the lot, for a construction fence and for a new three-story building. Completely disregarding the zoning code, Huang nearly completed construction of a four-story building.

Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) joined concerned residents in December 2006 to protest Huang’s development on Mazeau Street, calling on the DOB to stop issuing permits to Huang. Avella cited numerous violations and Huang’s 1997 felony conviction.

In 2008, a stop work order on the Mazeau Street site was temporarily lifted so Huang could remove the building’s fourth floor.

After the latest incident, Avella is renewing his fight against the Huangs. “Mr. Huang’s unsafe construction practices date back almost twenty years,” Avella said, “and his projects continue to receive numerous violations ... which often have resulted in destruction of adjoining properties and danger to public safety. Yesterday, a young father of three paid the ultimate price for his dangerous practices.”

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