New York City halts public design work over budget woes

Can't Design for the Public Without a Public

New York City halts public design work over budget woes

The empty streets of Tribeca during quarantine. (Jeffrey Blum/Unsplash)

New York City is still undergoing a novel coronavirus-related freeze on all “non-essential” construction, but the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) has extended that suspension to architects working on public design projects as well.

In a letter dated March 26 (one day before the AIANY town hall where the issue was broached), the agency mandated that firms currently engaged in public design work “You are directed to immediately halt all services being provided, or to be provided, under your Contract (including any task orders, change orders, amendments) with DDC, including all services provided by subcontractors and/or subconsultants.” In other words, any and all firms working on public projects have been ordered to stop, and they won’t be paid for work conducted after March 26 until the pause order has been lifted by the city.

While it might make sense to socially distance construction workers to halt the spread of COVID-19, architects have by-and-large moved to working remotely and are out of harm’s way. So why stop designers from designing in the comfort of their own homes? The city is anticipating a $7.4 billion drop in tax revenue for this fiscal year and next, and just today Mayor de Blasio introduced a new budget with $2 billion in cuts.

The DDC oversees projects across approximately 20 city agencies and is responsible for designing everything from salt sheds, to parking garages, to police stations. However, because of budget concerns, the department was ordered by the city to suspend design work even though, as Architectural Record noted, these projects are typically funded through bonds and the money is set aside solely for their completion. This is also the first time the city has put public design work on hold, as they continued to pay architects during the 2008 recession to help bolster small businesses (this move will likely hit small firms the hardest, as they will have to reorient their resources if they want to get paid).

This decision wasn’t made by the DDC, but rather came from the mayoral level as part of a wider budget review and other departments were affected as well. However, as Ben Prosky, executive director of AIANY, told AN, halting design work in such tumultuous times hurts not only architects, but engineers, the construction industry, and everyone else involved in such public projects.

In a letter sent to Mayor de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson on April 2, the American Council of Engineering Companies New York, American Institute of Architects New York, Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, Building Trades Employers’ Association of New York City, New York Building Congress, and New York City Central Labor Council all argued against the freeze.

“Delays to work that can safely continue from our homes will further hinder our city’s recovery efforts and create challenges for middle-class New York families, including many union construction workers and MWBE architects, engineers, and general contractors.

“We strongly recommend that you allow design and construction work to continue to the maximum extent permitted under New York State guidance. Furthermore, we ask that all design and construction that has already occurred be compensated.”

While the letter has yet to receive a response—likely due to the all-hands-on-deck tumult the city is facing—Prosky hopes that Mayor de Blasio will reconsider. According to him, “Design work now during a downtime means construction jobs in the future, and it will take that much longer for everyone involved to start moving things along again.”