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“Mapping Community,” a new exhibition at the Center for Architecture, demystifies the bureaucracy behind capital planning

A new exhibition at the Center for Architecture explains the city’s capital planing process
Samuel Lahoz

When Essex Crossing—the 26-story mixed-use megaproject in the Lower East Side—was in its nascent stages a few years ago, there were plans to include a public school. Residents of the neighborhood wanted one, local politicians supported it, and the developers were interested in setting aside space.

Faith Rose—an architect, curator, and former head of the New York City Public Design Commission—wanted to include the school in her new exhibition, “Mapping Community: Public Investment in NYC,” now on view at the AIA Center for Architecture. But there was a problem: The current plans for the megaproject don’t include a school, though one “may be developed in the future,” according to the city.

Rose was shocked: How could a project that received such enthusiasm disappear? But as she discovered when she began rooting around, the answer wasn’t so simple.

It’s a common refrain that the city doesn’t have enough schools, enough parks, or enough safe streets, and that refrain is certainly louder in some areas of the city than others. New York City funds its capital projects through refinancing bonds, then distributes money to a variety of city agencies that are then tasked with constructing and maintaining certain things.

But between when bonds are issued and projects are built, there isn’t a lot of transparency about how the process works. This is a clear, and significant, problem for communities fighting for better neighborhoods and the investment needed to get there. To build a better city, you have to have the funds.

“Mapping Community” attempts to shed light on this process by looking at how public capital projects in New York City—schools, parks, libraries, streets, fire houses, and more—are built.

This chart shows the proportion of funding capital agencies receive. The Department of Education is the largest, followed by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Department of Transportation.
Courtesy Center for Architecture

“As we set about doing this, we could not find a single document that could explain the process from beginning to end,” says Rose, who co-curated the exhibition with David Burney, a professor at Pratt and former commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction, and Valerie Stahl, a PhD student at Columbia GSAPP.

A question emblazoned on the exhibition’s walls asks: How does the city figure out what people want and need? As Rose began posing this question to different city agencies involved with built projects, a different line of inquiry emerged. While each department had a sound grip on their balance sheets, there wasn’t as much clarity about the whole process.

Once capital agencies receive their budgets, they decide how to spend their money. For example: CUNY spends most of its funding on keeping its buildings in a good state of repair. The DOE spends about as much on maintenance as it does on new construction.
Center for Architecture

“We would come out the meetings and say: But where does the money come from?,” Rose says.

Through infographics and case studies of actual built projects, “Mapping Community” explains how New York City allocates money for capital projects by first laying out the dozens of city agencies involved and what the oversight structure looks like. Then it shows how the capital budget is determined (essentially, projections based on how much revenue municipal bonds will earn), and how the mayor sets a budget and decides how funds should be allocated to various agencies. When agencies know what their budget will be, they decide how much they want to spend on maintaining existing capital projects versus building new ones. Once the budget for new construction is set, the agencies determine which communities are in greatest need for new projects—a very political process that balances citywide goals, mayoral initiatives, and community board needs—and get building.

The exhibition also shows how other funding mechanisms in the city’s budget—like the discretionary funds from borough presidents and the participatory budgeting process—can lead to some capital project construction.

Most capital funding goes toward keeping things in a good state of repair, also known as maintenance.
Courtesy Center for Architecture

Each year, AIANY’s president selects a theme to explore through programming and exhibitions. For 2019, Hayes Slade chose “community” and the various ways in which the word is defined and used in the context of the city. The impetus behind this exhibition was exploring if communities were getting the buildings and spaces they need. Deciding which neighborhoods get parks and schools and libraries is a very political process, as is deciding how much funding agencies receive in the first place. But instead of focusing on the politics behind funding, Rose and her co-curators wanted to show how funding works, sans editorializing, so people could have the facts.

“There’s plenty of negative opinion about the city government,” Rose says. “We thought, ‘Let’s just talk about how this works. Let’s provide a little more clarity to the process so that when someone does form their opinion, it’s an informed opinion.’”

When Borough Presidents and City Council fund projects, the money usually goes toward parks, libraries, and cultural centers.
Courtesy Center for Architecture

At Essex Crossing, for example, the lack of school was for a good reason, as a case study in the exhibition shows. While there’s a need for a schools in the district, they’re only at 75 percent capacity, compared to other districts where capacity is at an egregiously high 125 percent. With the funding the DOE currently has, it would allocate funds for a school in that district first, as they explained to Rose. (The Essex Crossing developers are still reserving space for a school through 2023 if funding is approved.)

At a time where there’s barely enough budget to go around, assessing if communities are getting what they need is challenging, and this exhibition shows why. “To understand a big, complex process [like building public projects] you have to toggle between a lot of realities,” Rose says. “Anytime you zero in on a specific project, you have to zoom out and look at the other things you’re going to need to solve in the city.”

“Mapping Community: Public Investment in NYC” is on view through August 31 at the AIA Center for Architecture.