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City Construction Department Touts Productivity When Freed from 'Typical Constrained Regime' by Emergency Declaration

construction city projects

Construction underway (photo: Edwin J. Torres/Mayor's Office)

Officials at the city’s Department of Design and Construction, the agency responsible for designing, procuring, and constructing public buildings and infrastructure, told the City Council on Wednesday that the coronavirus pandemic has shown how its work can be made more efficient.

That includes the city using its new design-build authority -- which the state approved an expansion of before the pandemic -- wherein both design and construction of a project is performed by one contractor, as well as streamlining the many layers of oversight that normally define the procurement process but were suspended last year at the outset of the pandemic.

“The fact that we were able to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars of construction from start to finish in mere months shows what the agency is capable of when working outside the typical constrained procurement, administrative, and oversight regime,” said Jamie Torres-Springer, First Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), at the hearing.

The comments came at a hearing of the City Council’s Subcommittee on the Capital Budget, the first with new Chair Helen Rosenthal, who took over the post amid several moves triggered by Ritchie Torres’ departure from the Council for Congress. Rosenthal noted the issues that the city will have getting its capital plan back on track after months of pandemic-related delays.

“The challenge is how to restart a stalled capital process and address the accumulated backlog of projects that were put on pause or never commenced,” said the Manhattan Democrat.

The city’s capital program ground to a halt at the beginning of the pandemic, with all projects put on “pause” with the exception of certain infrastructure initiatives related to roads, water, and sewage (most of which could be done outdoors), along with others like the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project to raise Manhattan’s East River waterfront by 10 feet, and projects backed with federal or state funding tied to deadlines, Torres-Springer said. Projects that were already under construction before the March pause began to restart when restrictions were first lifted in June.

Mayor Bill de Blasio in March suspended the standard procurement rules that govern the city’s ability to enter contracts, part of a wave of executive orders at the beginning of the pandemic as the mayor took on emergency powers, in order to more efficiently dole out city contracts for covid-related undertakings, like field hospitals and ventilators, without having to go through a sometimes slow notice and review process, including oversight by the City Comptroller’s office; Comptroller Scott Stringer, a Democratic candidate for mayor this year, has called for his office to have its procurement oversight powers restored.

Torres-Springer, however, said those rule relaxations allowed DDC to quickly build field hospitals while the city’s existing facilities filled to capacity. That was followed by testing sites, mobile testing sites, and upgrades for labs producing test results. He said that the agency is now working on building out vaccine sites, such as the one at Yankee Stadium.

“We built the facilities the city has relied on to manage the pandemic,” he said.

He also noted that, with procurement rules relaxed and design-build authority enabled by the state for some agencies, the city has been able to complete projects more quickly, citing in particular the rebuild of a section of Atlantic Avenue in East New York as part of the city’s “Great Streets” program, which was completed in June six months ahead of schedule.

“Projects that would have taken four or five years, we got them built,” Torres-Springer said. “$120 million worth of capital work, we got them built in less than nine months.”

While Torres-Springer did not outline specific recommendations for changes once the covid emergency is over that would allow for the faster design and construction pace to continue, his comments left a clear nudge toward reforms.

The mayor’s preliminary budget outlines $50 billion in planned capital spending over the next four years, including $11.7 billion in Fiscal Year 2022, which begins July 1 of this year, though the city’s progress on the plan is contingent on its cash flow, which remains unpredictable in the midst of the pandemic and resultant fiscal crisis.

Major capital projects put on the indefinite backburner at the start of the pandemic include the city’s plan to replace Rikers Island jails with four new borough-based jails, one in each borough except Staten Island. In 2019, the projected completion of the entire project was pegged to 2026, and the City Council in approving that plan banned any jails from operating on Rikers Island after December 31 of that year.

With work having stalled on the plan over the past year, the city now estimates that the plan won’t be completed until 2027. Torres-Springer told the Council that DDC expects to “register significant work” on the project “before the end of this year.” The city’s capital commitment for corrections fell between Fiscal Years 2019 and 2020, from $58 million to $42 million, but is back up this fiscal year to $405 million and continues to grow until reaching $2.4 billion in 2024.

Other major projects were not mentioned at all at the hearing, such as the mayor’s affordable housing plan. The city drastically cut its capital spending on affordable housing last year due to the fiscal crisis. The city’s affordable housing commitment is back up to $1.4 billion in this fiscal year, 2021, but is projected to trend downwards over the next five years.

The overall pause has hampered work on projects that were in the pipeline but had not actually begun construction. Adam Roberts, director of policy at the American Institute of Architects of New York, a trade association representing architects, noted that the pause could hurt the city’s ability to comply with its own landmark climate legislation requiring large buildings to be retrofitted for energy efficiency. Buildings, including those owned by the city, are required to be compliant or face fines by 2024.

“The design work stoppage at DDC and other agencies has been devastating to our city,” Roberts said. “Without design, construction cannot move forward.”

by Ben Brachfeld, Gotham Gazette

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