Shaping up DDC: Department Announces Plan to Stem Delays and Cost Overruns
When it finally opens this summer, the Hunters Point Community Library will be an architectural delight. Designed by Steven Holl Architects, with inkblot windows, glass imported from Spain, and a rooftop reading garden, the 22,000-square-foot building will be a welcome addition to the Long Island City, Queens waterfront. It will also be one of the most bloated public projects in the city, having taken close to a decade to complete, at a cost of over $1,700 per square foot.
The Hunters Point Library is an exaggerated case of an endemic problem of delays and cost overruns at the Department of Design and Construction, which oversees many of the city’s capital projects.
Last month, the DDC released a strategic plan to address these issues, part of the effort from the agency’s new Commissioner Lorraine Grillo to reform the agency. Grillo, who is also the CEO and president of the School Construction Authority, was appointed to the DDC position by Mayor Bill de Blasio last July.
“We came in very well aware of the issues, which really boiled down to whether we can deliver on time and deliver on budget, while still maintaining the quality we hold ourselves to,” said Jamie Torres Springer, the DDC’s first deputy commissioner, who also joined in July 2018, from the private sector.
The goal of the plan is to improve the pipeline, so projects move from concept to construction faster, manage active projects more effectively and modernize internal systems so that the various stakeholders can communicate with less friction.
Jonathan Bowles, the president of the nonprofit group Center for an Urban Future, said his organization was pleased with the plan. “It’s fairly rare for government to own up to its problems,” he said. “I have to really applaud what’s happening.”
A 2017 report from the CUF highlighted the scope of the problems at the department. The report, which focused on libraries, found that the median cost for a DDC library project, including new construction and repairs, was $930 per square foot, roughly double the cost to build an office tower, and that 36 percent of the projects took more than six years to complete, based on an analysis of 144 projects between 2010 and 2014. The Hunter’s Point Library is just one example, though an egregious one. It was approved in 2011 after several years of planning, with a budget of $30 million, and originally scheduled to open in 2014. The cost is now up to $39 million, with the opening scheduled for some time this summer, according to DDC.
In particular, reforms intend to address the pre-construction process, where many of the delays occur, as well as improve the process for making changes once a project is underway, according to Torres Springer. “An improved pipeline means that our projects need to be approved and started much faster, and that we’re very clear about what the project is at the start, to minimize changes midstream, which really trip us up,” Torres Springer said. Currently, a change order can take up to a year to process, he said.
Louis Colletti, the CEO and president of the Building Trades Employers’ Association, said the plan was “very sophisticated, and a step in the right direction.” He said the key for its success going forward is getting contractors paid on time, because that will reduce costs.
“They put out 10 reforms, and each of them is critical,” said Carlo Scissura, the president and CEO of the New York Building Congress who was also supportive of the plan. He pointed to the issue of change orders, modernizing the procurement process, and the implementation of a design-build, rather than design-bid-build, approach as crucial aspects of the plan to reform the agency.
The DDC currently has $13.5 billion worth of active projects under management, the majority of which is managed by its infrastructure arm, which works with the city’s department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Protection to repave roads, protect against flooding and repair sewage pipes. The DDC also works with other city agencies, especially the Office of Management and Budget, which needs to approve each capital project. Another agency is the New York Police Department on the Bjarke Ingels-designed 40th Precinct in the Bronx, which has experienced delays.
“DDC has put out a very important blueprint for reform, but if they don’t get the help they need from OMB and other city agencies that they work with, it’s not going to be as effective as it sounds,” Bowles said.