We Can Fix That! by Charles McKinney

Guest Speaker Charles McKinney, Practical Visionary, gave a slightly modified version of this article as his speech at our 24th Bronx Parks Speak Up on Saturday February 24, 2018.

Make your best judgement…fire! AIM…fire! AIM. That works in artillery where a spotter tells the gunner to adjust their aim.  It can also work in complex social and regulatory processes as long as the initial “best guess” action is followed by evaluation and correction.

However, sometimes governments don’t adjust their aim, they just keep firing.

In New York City, over the past 20 years, new purchasing and contracting rules, as well as management structures to enforce them, have made it difficult to make contracting decisions that are rational, common in private industry, in the best interest of the client, and save time and money effectively.

Agencies suffer through the rules established by external managing agencies and offices despite the adverse effect on project schedules and budgets.  Agencies, like NYC Parks, believe they have no power to change the rules and procedures.  In recent years, City government has started making use of authorities and non-profit groups such as the Economic Development Corporation, and the School Construction authority because– they are not obligated to follow the same rules.

This talk is about simple ways the New York City Council and Mayoral offices could work together to fix the existing system rather than develop a new Parks construction authority.

We can fix that!

It is always good, when asking for change, to point to instances when Citizens and Officials successfully instigated changes to established plans and practices in order to address a problem.  Sometimes community groups have to shine a light on things that need to be fixed.  Sometimes officials redirect the policy. We will look at two examples:

Tibbetts brook was put into a sewer

In the early 1900’s, during the development of the Kingsbridge neighborhood in the Bronx, engineers decided to put Tibbetts brook, the stream that collects a third of the Westchester county watershed before it meanders through the lake of Van Cortlandt Park into a large sewer pipe that takes it to the Wards Island Sewage Treatment Plant.  Not only did fish lose a path to their spawning grounds, these waters now cause local flooding in the Kingsbridge neighborhood.  They cause combined sewage and storm water to be dumped into the Harlem River during rain storms.

The Bronx Council of Environmental Quality has advocated daylighting the stream for many years; NYC Parks included daylighting in the Van Cortlandt Park master plan and initiated an effort to buy the CSX right of way all of the to the Harlem River. The Friends of Van Cortlandt Park formed a task force to build a broad constituency, and the non-profit City as Living Laboratory led by Artist Mary Miss will make a model of a daylighted Tibbetts brook.

All of this has encouraged NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection to rethink their earlier plans to lower the lakes in Van Cortlandt Park in order to increase their capacity to withhold water from the sewer during storms.  This would have made the lakes even more eutrophic.  At the January 2018 public meeting on the Long-Term Control Plan, DEP said they think daylighting is a viable solution.  They will investigate it.  We will soon need to encourage our elected officials to purchase the right-of-way.

We can fix that!

Tibbetts brook can be daylighted inside the CSX right-of-way to the Harlem River.

Parks Department capital projects have been dependent on City Council member funding since the budget crisis of 1990.

In council districts where there are lots of other problems in the community, it is possible parks will not receive much funding.  Most council people do not have as large a problem as Councilperson Andy Cohen, not only does he have the third largest park in the system, he has three council districts.  It is not right that such a large park that serves so many people be reliant on one Councilperson.

Commissioner Silver directed his planning staff to determine which communities have not received capital investment since 1990.  He then obtained mayoral funding for the Community Parks Initiative, and Anchor parks program which will are providing Mayor Funding for projects in poor neighborhoods.  His Parks Without Borders program will improve the entrance and a whole swath of Van Cortlandt park at 242nd street. No one knows if this funding will continue.

It would be desirable to replace the $400 million-dollar capital budget that parks forfeited in the 1990 budget crisis.  This was used to fund state of good repair projects, roofs, boilers, retaining walls and playgrounds.  These projects were done anywhere the Commissioner approved and did not require Design Commission approval.    The Department had funding to cover change orders without asking elected officials to do it.  It had funds to rebuild pools and other major facilities.

We can fix that!

Reestablish a pool of capital funding for state-of-good-repair projects, Commissioner initiatives and contingencies.

Parks need dedicated technical, forestry and horticulture crews

When I was a young planner I was good at learning from people who used Riverside park, and I was good problem solver.  Riverside Park needed daily erosion control and landscape restoration.  The community lobbied the City Council to establish an expense budget for Riverside Park because our community wanted maintenance not capital projects.  We were pleased when the City Council established a $600,000 expense and personnel budget for Riverside park’s restoration and maintenance.

We hired summer seasonals from the neighborhood, provided horticultural training and brought them on as employees when we had vacancies.  We began restoring 12 acres of riverside park every year by coordinating our work with requirements contracts for paths, fences, piping, masonry wall reconstruction.  Our community was very happy.

Then, in 1990 NYC had a large budget deficit.  We lost the bulk of that budget, and the crews.  That budget was not restored, even when times got better.  If that modest funding had continued…for the intervening 26 years at 12 acres a year, 300 acres of park would be restored and maintained by now.

There are parks throughout the Parks system that would benefit from modest expense budgets and small but dedicated crews.  I visited St. Nicholas park in northern Manhattan recently.  I was alarmed to see that stairs restored in early 2000 are shifting due to the lack of masonry pointing.  And most of the other thirty stairs in the park are sliding apart, some are closed.   St Nicholas needs two people and a couple of helpers to start pointing and resetting or we will be doing major capital projects on steps forever.

There are forested areas throughout the parks system that are being ravaged by invasive vines and Norway Maple seedlings.  Van Cortland Park’s forestry program has been reduced to three people.  They will never be able to save our most valuable historic forest from invasive vines.  These are but two examples of a City-wide problem that lead to the need for capital expenditures as well as loss of valuable ecosystems.

We can fix that!

Examine the distribution and job duties within the Department as well as the ratio of management and administration to field workers.  Make adjustments that will provide technical, forestry and gardening crews. 

Elected official are displeased, and the public is bewildered by, the length of time it takes to award design and construction contracts, as well as the number of times contractors default.

It is illuminating to know that many of the problems of the Capital project design and approval process that I faced when I was Chief of Design, and that Commissioner Silver and our elected officials face today, were not present in 1990.

There are rules and processes that have been established by the office of Management and Budget as well as the Mayor’s office of Contracts that have impeded the capital design and construction process.  Here is a sampling of things that they could fix:

NYC Parks cannot do borings and soil testing during design because these activities have been deemed not-capitally eligible.

If you cannot do borings and soil tests it impossible to know how much rock or contaminated soil will need to be removed.  If the designer does not know about it, it will not be included in the construction documents.  Once the project is in construction, and the underground condition is discovered, work will grind to a halt because the additional work will require negotiating with the contractor on the price at a time when he has you over a barrel.  Then the change, the change order, will require review and approval by internal parks people, and the office of management and budget.  Even worse, you might have to go back to the Council person who funded the project and request additional funds.  This might mean 3-6 months with a stalled construction project.

We can fix that! 

Fund pre-project soil borings and testing or make them capitally eligible.

The management structure outside of NYC Parks believed that if we stopped requiring completion bonds on small capital projects it would make it more feasible for small contractors to bid on city contracts.

It also made it possible for undercapitalized contractors to take on projects and fail, like the contractor building the Van Cortlandt Park skate park and the one working on the West Farms Rapids.

If those projects had been bonded, the bonding agent would be responsible for completing the project.  Now parks will have to repackage the contract documents, obtain OMB and Corporation council approval rebid, award and register a new contract with the Comptroller.  That will most likely take how long?  9 months.

We can fix that!

Reinstate the requirement that all capital project contractors obtain a completion bond.

There are protracted, and for the most part unnecessary, reviews of even the smallest contract, specifications and change orders by the Office of Management and Budget, and the Corporation Council.

Even if the exact same materials have been reviewed before, such as design contracts, construction specifications, contracts with on-call consultants and work assignments to on-call contractors they must be reviewed again.  NYC Parks budgets 9 months for review, bid and award activities.  But it could take longer……. because the submissions are waiting for the overworked reviewers, whose job it is to find fault, to get to them.  The reviewers are unlikely to be rewarded for fast turnaround, only punished if an error should slip past them.

The Office of Management and Budget should not be required to review change orders, and they should not have any say in how the contingency in a contract is allocated.

We can fix that!

Decrease the time and cost of a capital projects by removing restrictive procurement and ineffective contracting rules, and simply allow agencies to approve their own change orders, specifications and contract documents.  They should be authorized to self-certify that they are in compliance. 

I believe if we started by addressing the few things I have enumerated, we would restore our parks faster, keep them in good repair longer and provide substantive local employment.

That would make New York City not only the fairest big city in America, but put it on a path to be the smartest.

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