Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora, orange vest, center, has led the DDC since April 2014. (DDC / Flickr)
On March 9, New York City Department of Design and Construction (DDC) Commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora and Chief Architect Margaret O’Donoghue Castillo unveiled guiding principles for the revamped capital construction program, Design and Construction Excellence 2.0, at the Center for Architecture.
AN spoke with Commissioner Peña-Mora about Build it Back, revitalizing neighborhoods through civic projects, great architecture within budgets, and how small firms can partner with the DDC.
Staten Island’s Stapleton Library, designed by Andrew Berman Architect, is one of the many projects completed under the auspices of the DDC. (Courtesy Andrew Berman Architect)
The Architect’s Newspaper: In his State of the City address, Mayor de Blasio cited three neighborhoods—Brownsville/Ocean Hill, the South Bronx, and Far Rockaway—for targeted revitalizations. Through the Design Excellence Program, the DDC has major civic projects in design or under construction in all of those neighborhoods. What is the DDC’s role in facilitating neighborhood transformation?
Commissioner Peña-Mora: In the Chief Architect’s office, we have this inter-client conversation where we look at how the different projects in a neighborhood can support each other. For example, in Brownsville, we have quite a few: [There’s] Rescue 2, by Jeanne Gang, but we also have some library projects, we have some plazas. We wanted to really talk about how each one of these projects can support what is happening in the others and help the whole neighborhood. We’re looking at a neighborhood approach, those are some of the conversations that we’re having.
The issue is that each agency (City Planning, NYC DOT) looks for funding for their own projects, but since we’re actually doing the same neighborhood for all those agencies, we can see the whole map of all the projects and how to integrate them.
Many of the projects commissioned under the Design and Construction Excellence program are inventive, beautiful buildings from high-profile architects. Critics have noted, though, that these projects often run far over budget and behind schedule. What is the ideal balance between cost-effectiveness and beauty in civic architecture and public spaces?
I do not subscribe to the thought that because a building is beautiful [it is] more expensive. I think there are a lot of factors that play into the cost of a project. Sometimes the scope changes, or the duration of the market; some of those projects, when the scope changes, they have to be stopped while we get more funding. Sometimes, those project have gone through the fiscal recession, and when you restart those projects, [Agencies] have to say, “Okay. At that time I was thinking I wanted to do this, and now I’m thinking that I want to do that.”
Each project is unique, and each cost overrun and late project has its own story, and I wouldn’t say that’s because these are beautiful projects, or that they’re done by a [famous] architect. I would say that they’re not necessarily correlated, but again, I haven’t done all the research for it.
Build it Back house lift on Staten Island, 2015. (DDC / Flickr)
Let’s talk about Build it Back. So far, over 1,200 rebuilds have been completed. What’s next for the program?
Right now, part of our portfolio are three different segments: HPD is doing one group, we are doing one, and “choose your own contractor” is another group. We have around 1,700 homes that we have to elevate, reconstruct, or rebuild. Mayor de Blasio has asked us to finish the program by the end of this year. Right now, 95 to 99 percent of our homes are in design, and we hope that we are going to start the construction phase in the summer to be completed at the end of the fall.
What is so important about the Build it Back program, you know, is a lot of people talk about the houses, but I like to refer to the homes. Each one of them has a very personal, different family story. We just finished one in 120 days. The family was expecting a baby, and we wanted to finish the project before she was born. Although Baby Nora came early, it was so rewarding to see that family in that elevated home, that resilient home, that has been restored. This is a story that will repeat 1,000 times, for each family that we are helping. Normally, we work through agencies, and this is the first time we’re working directly with New Yorkers. So, it’s quite different for us, but very rewarding.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to smaller architecture firms who are looking to work with the DDC for the first time?
We just went though a competition, and we did this new category called the micro, in which we allowed [firms of] less than five people to propose [projects]. Small firms should never be discouraged if they didn’t make the competition that just finished. They should be preparing for the next one that coming in two to three years, and also be looking for other opportunities with the DDC. We also have a stand-alone competition, but the stand-alone usually requires larger firms, so smaller firms should be looking to collaborate with other small firms to create consultant [groups] to be able to work on our projects.