NYC Building Agency Aims for Big Impact

With little fanfare but with a big impact in improving the quality of life in New York City, the Dept.  of Design and Construction (DDC) has completed nearly 4,000 construction projects in the five boroughs since it was formed in the late 1990s to manage the building mandate of nearly all city agencies.

DDC now moves forward with a $15-billion project portfolio under its fourth commissioner—Feniosky Peña-Mora, a former engineering school dean at Columbia University who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. ENR New York has chosen the DDC as Owner of the Year based on the agency’s continued commitment to working with the regional construction community and in serving city businesses, institutions and residents.

Under Peña-Mora’s direction, DDC has taken the lead on a number of initiatives to combat extreme weather conditions that have already had major impacts on city buildings and infrastructure. To clean up the damage created by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the agency assists with management of Build-It-Back, a program created by the New York City Housing Recovery Office.

Now ongoing in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, Build-It-Back is focused on three main categories of weather resistant construction: home elevations, in which existing structures are lifted out of the flood plain; home rehabilitations that include storm-related repair work; and reconstruction of homes badly damaged by the storm. The first home elevation to take place under DDC’s management was completed in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, in February.

“The focus of the program on the homeowner served as a constant reminder of the real purpose of all our efforts,” says Roberto Leon of CSA Group, a design firm working with DDC on Build-It-Back.

Not content to simply clean up past damage, DDC is also managing the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, a program created by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency in partnership with the Dept. of Parks & Recreation, the Dept. of Transportation, the Dept. of Environmental Protection, New York City Housing Authority and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Its goal is to protect low-lying neighborhoods along two miles of Manhattan’s East River from any future storm flooding. With a landscape acting as a barrier for nearby streets, the design will offer additional public access to the waterfront, including pedestrian bridges and street-level entrances that will prevent floodwater entry through the use of gates.

DDC also is moving on other quality of life improvements—including installation of 42,000 wheelchair-accessible ramps and improvement of the sewage system. Times Square Plaza, Fordham Plaza in the Bronx, the Plaza de Las Americas in Manhattan’s Washington Heights and W. 215th Step Street in its northern Inwood section have helped establish safer and more usable spaces for pedestrians. The plazas “really represent the histories and culture of the neighborhoods,” says Peña-Mora. “They are for everybody but still speak to the neighborhood.”

DDC also seeks to better align design of public facilities and infrastructure with de Blasio’s environmental and economic goals. The agency unveiled on March 9 a revamped set of design priorities based on four new guiding principles—equity, sustainability, resiliency and healthy living. Peña-Mora and Margaret Castillo, DDC chief architect, told attendees at a packed forum that the principles do not offer specific regulations for DDC-managed projects but are meant to foster conversation about how design can strengthen the city, says ENR NY’s sister publication Architectural Record.  “We don’t want to be prescriptive,” Peña-Mora said. “There are many ways to implement these ideas.” The principles provide a launching point for Design and Construction Excellence 2.0, DDC’s updated framework.

The agency has faced its share of challenges. Several projects, such as police precinct buildings in Manhattan and Staten Island, were well past the initial budget by the time of completion. A long-delayed branch of Queens Library in Hunters Point, which finally broke ground last year, will cost $10 million more than initially expected.

Some critics point to DDC’s Design Excellence program, created by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2004, that has enhanced design but pushed some projects over budget and behind schedule. Others note city procurement rules that require change-order generated construction cost increases to be approved by the Office of Management and Budget before a project can move forward.

“The procurement administration process is certainly one of the challenges for the agency,” says Peña-Mora. “We can only operate within the constraints of the rules, which pose many limitations that can lead to delays.”

To boost outreach to the city’s construction community, DDC has implemented a mentorship program that provides minority and women-owned businesses with instruction in construction and business management skills, one-on-one guidance from an experienced project manager and an assessment and customized plan for business growth. Enrolled firms are able to access contracting opportunities through DDC’s prequalified list, which gives qualified participants a leg up in the construction market. In 2015, 42% of prime contracts and 35% of subcontracts awarded to M/WBE’s in New York City were awarded by DDC, a 20% increase since 2014.

Peña-Mora appointed the first chief diversity officer role in a major city agency and created an external diversity advisory board to link agency procurement opportunities to eligible firms, says Elizabeth Velez, panel chair and president of Velez Organization, a certified minority contractor in New York City. “His commissionership has been a breath of fresh air,” she adds.

Since 2014, DDC has also sponsored the STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Architecture Math) education initiative to interest city middle and high school students in engineering and construction. About 400 have participated so far.  STEAM also includes the Faculty Fellows program, which enlists architecture and engineering professors to share best practices with DDC interns and employees.

“It is truly rewarding to see how our projects serve and speak to the needs and wants of the community,” Pena-Mora says of the agency’s work during his tenure.

“Our projects are respectful, mindful and in tune with the community. Now more than ever, we are working to ensure that these vital public resources are equitably distributed and equally welcoming to all.”

By Alisa Zevin [ENR]

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