Up High, Down Too Slow

Report reveals staggering new details on NYC capital project delays

Architecture Development East
Report reveals staggering new details on NYC capital project delays. Seen here: Hunters Point Community Library by Steven Holl Architects. The report cites the library as one project whose cost and scope ballooned during the city's bureaucratic process. (Zachary Edelson/AN)
Report reveals staggering new details on NYC capital project delays. Seen here: Hunters Point Community Library by Steven Holl Architects. The report cites the library as one project whose cost and scope ballooned during the city's bureaucratic process. (Zachary Edelson/AN)

The Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a nonpartisan policy organization, released a report in April of this year purporting that internal practices within several New York City agencies are partially to blame for the deficiencies of public construction projects. Titled Slow Build, the document outlines a variety of findings related to the schedule and budget of capital projects, including the revelation that the median duration for a cultural project is seven years and costs nearly $930 per square foot to build.

The Department of Design and Construction (DDC) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) oversee capital projects for the city. According to the report, these agencies utilized inefficient systems and protocols that are in need of a policy overhaul to improve project delivery.

The report, produced in collaboration with Citizens Budget Commission, analyzed the details of 144 library and cultural buildings that were completed between the 2010 and 2014 fiscal years, supplemented by dozens of expert interviews. Among the claims made, the report found that “86 percent of delays occur before construction begins, with many projects getting tripped up in the initial scoping and design phases.” This suggests that extensive reviews for public projects and inaccurate cost-procurement processes are a major source of the problem. The report also identifies city-initiated scope alterations, which often lead to costly and prolonged change orders during construction, as contributing factors to the delays.

In addition to the bureaucratic logjam, the report also draws attention to certain state laws “that both mandate a low-bid procurement system and prevent city projects from adopting a design-build process.” While many of the report’s recommendations include streamlining municipal procedures, CUF also suggests a loosening of state laws to accommodate less restrictive procurement practices for public buildings.

This suggestion is not out of the question as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo did sign into law design-build protocols for infrastructure-related projects in 2011. However, these changes to architectural contracts would require stronger advocacy by city leaders, political capital which has not yet materialized. Not only is 2017 a mayoral election year, but recently the former DDC Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora was forced to step down amid controversies related to delays in Hurricane Sandy–rebuild efforts that have long been overdue. It is unlikely that this issue will attract much attention in the coming months.

It is critical to note, however, that this survey includes projects largely shepherded by the Bloomberg administration and did not review the policies, initiatives, or funding practices of the current administration. The Hunters Point Community Library by Steven Holl, for instance, has been in the pipeline since 2008 and just recently experienced another delay regarding an unforeseeable glass shipment fiasco from Spain.

For its part, the city appears to be making moves to rectify some of the concerns raised in this report. A spokesman for the DDC cited that since July 2014 procurement durations have been reduced from an average of one year to nine months, and that project durations have shortened by up to 40 percent. The spokesman also highlighted a new division of the DDC called Front End Planning Unit that “[ensures] that the scope of work and budget meet necessary requirements” before a project is accepted.

When it comes to awarding public design contracts, the DDC announced in 2016 a change to its proposal-solicitation program, launching the Design and Construction Excellence 2.0 (DCE 2.0) initiative, a revamp of the DDC’s exclusive on-call list for NYC architecture firms. Though the CUF report does not mention this program, the DDC stated that the shift was necessary to “encourage the development of perceptive solutions that enhance performance ranging from minimizing emissions of greenhouse gasses to design that engages groups who may feel left out.”

The program was originally launched in 2004 and has included firms such as Bjarke Ingels Group, Steven Holl Architects, and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Now the list of 26 companies is subdivided into four sections by project scale allowing for more competition among the firms, ensuring that the right team can handle the scope of the projects. DCE 2.0 is an effort by the agency to address not only the quantifiable metrics of project delivery addressed by CUF, but also the qualitative role that architects play in the delivery of public buildings.

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