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11.19.2009
Mike's Angels
From the wildflower-strewn High Line to Broadway's piazza transformation and the city's flourishing Design and Construction Excellence program, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg can rightfully claim that he has made New York a more livable, inviting city. But he had help. The four commissioners overseeing parks, planning, transportation, and building design have formed an enlightened fellowship dedicated to thoroughly researched idealism, and wedded to pragmatic execution that is unprecedented in the recent history of the city's bureaucracy. With their PowerPoints and their guidelines, these four preside over the most visible triumphs, and grandest experiments, of the mayor's legacy.
Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Design and Construction Commissioner David Burney, Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, and Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adrian Benepe in the plaza of the Standard Hotel.
Adam Friedberg

On October 22, The Architect’s Newspaper hosted a roundtable conversation with Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe; Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden; Design and Construction Commissioner David Burney; and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. With the mayoral election just a few weeks away, the commissioners discussed their priorities, upcoming initiatives, how they work together and apart, and above all, their shared determination to make high-quality design and professional involvement a priority in an ambitious administration that came to office in boom times and is now facing a prolonged recession.

The Architect's Newspaper: The High Line has turned out to be hugely popular. What have you learned that might work elsewhere in the city or in your departments?

Amanda Burden, Department of City Planning: One of the important elements is that you see the city from a completely different vantage point, close enough to see people’s faces down below, but far enough to feel a little removed from the city. I don’t think we would have imagined it that way if we hadn’t seen it completely planted, prompting the notion of a meadow in the sky, but now people are looking differently at barren tracks and barren roads as if they too might be something very special for the city.

David Burney, Department of Design and Construction: What did Jane Jacobs say about how the function of the city was to offer a multiplicity of choices? I think that’s something that applies especially to New Yorkers who really respond to anything unique and out of the ordinary. Finding those treasures and uncovering them and transforming them through some kind of adaptive reuse is a New York phenomenon, and part of the explanation for the High Line’s popularity.

Adrian Benepe, Department of Parks and Recreation: I think something going on very much like that is what Janette [Sadik-Khan] is doing in the streets. The only time that I ever experienced the middle of Fifth Avenue was during a parade. Overnight, she has created all kinds of new experiences on our streets.

Janette Sadik-Khan: We are looking at our streets differently. We are looking at them as valuable real estate instead of one-dimensionally. For 40 years, we spent a lot of time, energy, and money creating utilitarian corridors that really maximize car usage, and now we’re reimagining our streets as the real estate they are and taking a look at how we can use them differently.

Benepe: The other day I got through Herald Square faster than I ever have before. It’s counterintuitive, but by closing down some streets, things do move more smoothly.

Sadik-Khan: My big takeaway from Times Square is that when we did it, we figured out how to make it wonderful in terms of conditions, but we hadn’t planned for programming. So we came up with the idea of beach chairs and ended up going to a discount hardware store to get them. It looked like it was a brilliant move, but it was very short and quick to happen. People spent so much time thinking about the beach chairs, and not the project, that I think a strategy going forward for the city is to put lots of beach chairs out for whatever project is going on, and people will only talk about the beach chairs.

Department of Design and Construction: Mariners Harbor Branch Library, Staten Island, Atelier Pagnamenta Torriani Architects
Courtesy APT Architects

That brings up a hot topic among architects and designers. What other kinds of temporary or not-quite-permanent design plans do you see happening?

Benepe: An interesting thing at Brooklyn Bridge Park is, of course, the great Michael Van Valkenburgh design about to open. But long before the actual construction started, back when we knew we were going to have the Waterfalls art exhibit, Susannah Drake—a landscape architect from the area—did a pop-up park overnight that was hugely successful. It just shows how almost any space in New York can be a public space. We can do these insta-spaces, see how they work, then bring in the architects. But I think the real key to any long-term success is having good architects and landscape architects.

Janette, do you agree?

Sadik-Khan: We were trying to give the notion of a greater, greener New York really quickly. I think New Yorkers are tired of waiting decades for projects to happen. We wanted to show what a different approach to transportation is about, using paint, planters, and plastic markings. But we also did work with Billings Jackson and Pure+Applied on the designs. We have a very strong design team in the department, too.

Burden: Both Broadway and the High Line have shown that we are finally a city that is providing great spaces for socializing in our public realm. And just by giving people a nice place to sit, they begin to populate places they never thought about populating.

Burney: There are challenges. Look at Astor Place, where they are trying to introduce more seating in an expanded plaza. As often happens, there is one constituent saying, “No we don’t want students here drinking beer.” It’s an education process, and we have to work on that.

Sadik-Khan: New York City is largely a city without seats, and so Amanda and I went over to Copenhagen and met with Jan Gehl, a well-known architect, planner, and designer who has done terrific work making recommendations to transform cities like London, Paris, and Abu Dhabi, and we brought him back to New York to help work with us. He did a public-life survey on the streets, analyzing Broadway, from 59th to Houston streets. First of all, he found that down that whole corridor, about 30 percent is covered in scaffolding. And that’s a nightmare, so we are working with Bob LiMandri at the Buildings Department on a design competition for better urban sheds. The second piece of news was that there was no seating, and there were only three outdoor cafes in that entire stretch. So we’re working on that, now, too.

Department of Parks and Recreation: Concrete Plant Park, Bronx River Greenway
Malcolm Pinckney/Courtesy Dept of  Parks

When you have a strong idea, what do you have to do to make it happen?

Benepe: I think one of the things that liberates all of us to do interesting things is having a mayor and a deputy mayor who think good design is important. Without casting aspersions on previous administrations, I don’t think we’ve had an administration before that thought about urban design at this level—and not only allows it, but insists on it. The Design and Construction Excellence program began in this administration; the Public Design Commission is empowered to insist on good design. They wanted to make it possible for the city to hire great architects and designers who had previously, for whatever reason, been scared away from doing city work, or couldn’t get it, or faced a system that wasn’t set up for them to get it. Now the belief across all the agencies is that we should have great design.

Burden: Each one of us has incorporated the ideas of design excellence. We use it at city planning, because we feel it is the best way to communicate with the general public. All of our rezonings are very complicated—and we just celebrated our 100th one affecting 8,400 blocks—but none of those would have happened, or been adopted, if we didn’t have community consent. So instead of just drawing the zoning map, with me saying you are going to get T64-a—which you’ll vote against, because you don’t know what it is—we have an urban design team that draws all the zoning plans in three dimensions. That’s how we sell, convince, and engage the community with urban design master plans. It’s a much better communicating tool; the feedback we get is much better, and it’s easier to find workable options.

It’s exciting for young architects to see how each of your departments has revitalized design offices. Is there a lot of crossover in what you do?

Burney: We have engaged this whole portfolio of younger, smaller firms that is really unprecedented and very successful, just by changing the method of procurement. If you look at almost any of these projects, there are parks elements, planning issues, and DOT matters, so we sometimes end up discussing even the smallest details for weeks: The guardrail at Pelham Parkway, for instance, comes to mind as an endless discussion.

We are sometimes forced into these dialogues as a result of overlapping jurisdictions. But normally the way it works is that Janette’s design folks are more at the front end of the process, identifying opportunities and doing initial planning, and then it comes over to my department for details of design and how to manage the construction, and then after that over to Adrian. There are many opportunities where we have to get together and engage design firms in the process.

But going forward, I think we need to spend more time on the construction side. We have done well with design excellence, we hire top-quality architects, and we’ve raised expectations for good design. But on the construction side, we are still locked into this very adversarial, sealed-bid process, and we haven’t quite got the quality-based selection process throughout our construction contractors. And so much of our work now is complex, particularly on the building side, where structures are very sophisticated, emerging systems are so complex, and so many sub-trades are involved. If you’re not working as a design and construction team from the very beginning, you’re in trouble.

Benepe: We do need some kind of construction procurement reform, because it is becoming increasingly difficult to build things in New York.

Sadik-Khan: I also think we need to do a better job when we are under construction, managing the impact of that construction on the street. And we are doing a lot of work to up our game, with competitions for art around construction sites. And we’re working with students and design teams on Jersey barriers for roadways. Must they look so ugly all the time? Do we have to have the world’s most hideous sheds casting terrible shadows and creating dangerous spaces around the city?

In other cities like Montreal, they have curtains showing what the building will look like. I mean, we’re a world-class city, and we need to have world-class treatments. Even if it seems like everything is under construction at the same time, it doesn’t have to be so grim.

Burney: I know, let’s close all the streets to traffic to get the thing done on time!

Sadik-Khan It’ll be the shortest third term ever…

Department of City Planning: The High Line
Courtesy Friends of the High Line

Do you see integrated modeling like BIM becoming key to how the city undertakes projects?

Burney: BIM has gained a lot of traction in the design field even at the small firms now, and there are a lot of consultants who specialize in modeling. On the design end, where there’s a lot of integration of mechanical and electrical systems with the architecture, it’s quite well established. It is less so in construction. Bigger firms, the Turners and Tishmans, all have the capability to use BIM and use it to generate schedules and make two-dimensional drawings for their contractors. Smaller contractors are not there yet; the technology is expensive and sophisticated, and it will be several years before it reaches down. It is very much the future, though.

Do you require it?

Burney: We do from consultants, but not from contractors because it’s not yet realistic, though it was a requirement on the new 911 Center. Another thing, when we are doing Janette’s work—utilities, water and sewers, power cables, Con Ed data—is getting everything mapped, because in most cases we have no idea what’s under the street. We’re moving to a new program to document and photograph the work before we close the street up. That’ll get mapped onto the GIS system, and then goes into the city GIS forever so we’ll know pretty much where everything is.

Assuming you are all heading for third terms, what now? Is a new vision still possible in a recession?

Benepe: Absolutely. We’ve all taken cuts on our capital budgets, but those cuts are against historic buildups. Even if cut by 30 percent, Parks is still spending 200 percent more than we spent before.

Burney: Plus bids are down 25 percent.

Benepe: I don’t know if this is true for the others, but Parks is in the midst of the biggest expansion in building since the WPA. We’ll have spent $2.5 billion by the third administration, and even with cuts we still have $2 billion in our budget: Fresh Kills, Far Rockaway; the big projects in PlaNYC are all proceeding, as are the $25 to 50 million projects.

The mayor’s office has said that even in the teeth of a recession you want to keep building, because you don’t want the city to lose its vitality. And in Parks, we are still working with an A-list of architects; we have more work than we can handle with our existing resources and consultants.

Department of Transportation: Broadway plaza at Herald Square in Midtown
Courtesy DOT

What’s the top priority for Parks and Planning in the next few years?

Benepe: Getting PlaNYC built, especially the eight major regional parks projects; getting Fresh Kills underway, as it still has $150 million in funding; getting Brooklyn Bridge Park finished and opened; finishing Yankee Stadium. There are also mitigation projects; filtration projects—we still have a very ambitious program and we have to figure out how to get it all done.

Burden: You have to remember planning is for the long term. There are always economic crises, and the goal is to create a blueprint so at the end of the crisis we can channel growth to areas that can handle development, areas that are rich in mass transit. And also it’s important to channel away from other kinds of neighborhoods to preserve qualities there.

For all of us, the citywide goal is to make New York a model for smart growth, livability, and sustainability on the neighborhood and building scale. We want to use zoning to incentivize and facilitate more high-performance, energy-efficient buildings across the city.

Do you see an expanding role for your departments, reaching into new areas?

Burney: Yes. In fact, coming out at the end of November is a new Active Design Guide that we did, working with, among others, the Department of Health. It will be one of the tools for fighting obesity by promoting active mobility. We kind of stumbled into it, but it addresses issues like how to maximize stair use. There’s a lot of research now on designing buildings to encourage people to be more active, by moving stairs forward, making them more attractive. It’s an issue involving all of us at the building, design, transportation, and planning levels.

Where else have you been looking for inspiration?

Burney: I was in Los Angeles and London recently—two completely opposite places—but what struck me about talking to government people in these two cities is how lucky we are with an administration that’s so design-focused. We have a decent amount of control of our own destiny. These other cities are so disparate in terms of who’s in charge. We control quite a lot of the public realm.

Benepe: But we can’t add more land. In the 1930s, if we wanted spaces, we made landfill—we can’t do that now. You have to be courageous, because every time you repurpose a brownfield or build along the water’s edge or take an entire industrial area and make it into a new park, you have to be willing to spend money. And it takes huge sums of money and resources to build a city for the future.

Burney: I think that the battle for a livable city is a constant struggle, every lot at a time, every borough at a time—the libraries, the museums, the parks, the streets, the fire hazards and police stations. Those are the things that kind of come together over time to make a really great-designed city. It’s not one big event, and you’re done.

This interview was conducted by Claire Weisz of WXY Architecture + Urban Design and AN executive editor Julie V. Iovine.