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New York City halts design work on public projects during coronavirus pandemic

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Architects and engineers have been told to suspend work on city-backed projects for the foreseeable future

Design work for public projects, like DSNY’s Spring Street Salt Shed, is being halted in New York City amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Max Touhey

Construction sites across New York City have largely come to a standstill under a state mandate to pause nonessential work, but preparations for upcoming projects had, for the most part, continued as normal. Design work can be performed safely indoors, and there are several planning hurdles builders must complete before a project can move forward. This is especially true for municipal projects, which typically require myriad reviews.

That’s why architects who were awarded contracts for several city projects were shocked to receive letters in late March from the Department of Design and Construction (DDC), which oversees the bulk of municipal capital projects, ordering them to halt design work. A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed that city agencies have issued indefinite suspensions on work for several public undertakings.

Many of those contracted for such projects have questioned the move, pointing to the need to keep work going to ensure that the city can eventually break ground on civic buildings that could employ tens of thousands of construction workers. Plus, that preliminary work—including for libraries, schools, and community centers—was keeping many small architecture and engineering firms afloat; now, they’re scrambling to make ends meet.

“We don’t know where this came from, what the motivation was. [There was] no warning; simply a call out of the blue to stop work,” says David Lewis, a principal at LTL Architects, whose firm was designing a major renovation for a library in Brownsville. “We had a staff of four people working on this, and now, suddenly, we don’t.”

Unlike luxury construction, many city-backed projects (such as the DSNY Salt Shed, pictured above, which was completed in 2016) are intended as crucial social infrastructure. And some fear the pause on work could snowball into a longer deferment of services for underserved sections of the city.

“There’s a real need to keep these projects flowing,” says Matthew Bremer, a principal at Architecture in Formation, which was awarded a contract to build a community center for a Staten Island public housing complex. “So when you get a letter that has a slightly flat-footed stop-work order with the term ‘suspended indefinitely,’ you’re definitely concerned.”

In an April 2 letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, along with five other engineering and construction groups, urged the city to reconsider the pause on public design work.

“As we explore ways to maintain basic levels of economic activity, permitting design work for public projects to continue will serve as an important opportunity to keep workers safely employed,” the letter says. “Delays to work that can safely continue from our homes will further hinder our city’s recovery efforts.”

Ben Prosky, the executive director of AIA New York, says that many firms grappling with the loss of city work were already dealing with delays on private projects and have been forced to lay off and furlough workers or cut salaries. While sympathetic that the city is being forced to make tough financial decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Prosky fears this action could have major consequences once New York City is back up and running.

“By halting the design work now you’re halting [small firms’] ability to get back on their feet,” says Prosky, who notes some companies are trying to tap into small business loan and grant money. “We would rather be paid to advance design work and be working, then paid to keep our offices afloat and not work.”

Jane Meyer, the City Hall spokesperson, points to the economic blow New York City is suffering in the midst of the pandemic, with the de Blasio administration slashing $1.3 billion from the proposed 2020-2021 budget, and the mounting costs of treating those sickened by COVID-19.

“Given the evolving budget situation, we are pausing design work with outside contractors,” Meyer said in a statement. City Hall indicated that projects are being reviewed on a case-by-case basis, with work on major civic initiatives like the $8.7 billion borough-based jails and the $1.4 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency Project pushing on “with minimal external support,” according to Meyer.

But some questioned City Hall’s rationale, given the fact that money for current projects has already been allocated and can’t be repurposed for operating expenses. David Burney, a professor at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture and a former DDC commissioner, called the decision “bizarre” and notes that municipal capital projects are financed through bonds, which creates challenges to potentially diverting those funds.

“The way bond finance law works, [the city] can’t repurpose the funds to operating costs, only to other capital projects,” says Burney. “What’s not capital eligible is, say, paying the salaries of teachers and sanitation workers. So that’s why this is hard to understand.”

Others, meanwhile, are sympathetic to the city as it zeroes in on battling COVID-19.

“Frankly, I think it’s the right call. I think the city is using this time to focus its resources on health care and that’s what’s needed right now,” says Victor Body-Lawson, principal of Body Lawson Associates, whose firm is working on affordable housing projects that are moving forward with the city. “I think eventually they’ll have to work on getting public projects back online because that’s what keeps the city running. It’s a difficult situation.”