By Caroline Spivak
December 6, 2022
A new City Council bill would require the Department of Parks and Recreation to shave years off lengthy project timelines, in a legislative push that aims to spur broader capital process reforms.
The legislation, sponsored by Queens City Council member Shekar Krishnan, calls on the agency to create a blueprint for reducing capital project timelines by 25%—an average of two years—to more efficiently deliver badly needed upgrades to the city’s parks system.
“We have seen how essential our parks and green spaces are for our mental health and well-being,” Krishnan told Crain’s. “If we are to expand our green spaces, and do so at the rate we need to ensure all New Yorkers have access, we must have a much faster capital construction process for our parks.”
The bill’s passage would be what Krishnan and good governance advocates say is the first step in creating a citywide blueprint to reform New York’s red-tape plagued capital process. City agencies are infamously bogged down by cumbersome approvals, restrictions and various other checks that were intended as cost-saving measures but often burden the city with expensive delays.
In recognition of the problem, Mayor Eric Adams in April launched the capital process reform task force, which in October released its preliminary recommendations. A final road map is expected later this month.
Advocates with New Yorkers for Parks and the Center for an Urban Future, meanwhile, have launched the Build Back Faster NYC campaign, encouraging the Adams administration and the City Council to make changes that would reduce the average time it takes to build and repair infrastructure by at least 25%.
Cutting that red tape would save the city an estimated $800 million over five years, or enough to pay for 150 full-time parks maintenance workers for the next decade, the public policy think tank Center for an Urban Future said. For the parks department, the average project takes from seven to eight years to complete.
The consequences of delayed park infrastructure are perhaps the most visible to city residents. Holdups mean neighborhoods are forced for months or years to go without green space or playgrounds, public bathrooms, or cultural and recreational facilities.
Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director at the Center for Urban Future, described the “devilish problem” as one caused by a variety of bureaucratic checks that can snag projects and send costs skyrocketing.
For instance, if there are unforeseen conditions, such as uncovering a crumbling drainage pipe or encountering asbestos, a change order is required to tweak a contract. The interagency process to negotiate those changes and costs, however, can take months. That means additional fees for staff time. Because construction has already begun, putting that process on pause can cause a number of already-in-motion costs to mount, such as for permits, staging areas and construction equipment.
The typical municipal project, Dvorkin said, requires between five and 10 change orders, and this is just one instance of multiple approval and process hurdles.
“No one roadblock is solely responsible for the astronomical costs for projects, but cumulatively, they add up to months and even years of delays,” Dvorkin said. “That's part of what makes attacking this problem so challenging, because we need to fix lots of small roadblocks that collectively impede progress.”
Krishnan said he would have the parks department start with a thorough review of the agency’s capital planning, selection and construction processes to find opportunities to reduce lengthy processes. If the bill became law, the parks department would be required to craft a blueprint by Dec. 1, 2023.
Parks department representative Meghan Lalor said the agency approved of the intent of the bill and was "happy to work with the council to improve public awareness of capital process reform efforts.”
“We shouldn't be throwing money away on arcane bureaucratic processes that don't actually do anything for the city,” stressed Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, a research and advocacy organization.
“When we talk about the costs of building a comfort station going above $4.5 million, you could build a pretty nice, high-end house for that much and we’re talking about two bathrooms and a waiting area,” Ganser added. "Something is off here."
Many now-frustrating requirements were created in the 1970s and '80s to crack down on rampant corruption at the time. Public hearings, for example, are required for any project procurement over $100,000—a rule established in 1989.
Those extra steps are doing the city more damage than good, Ganser said.
“I’m not saying corruption is not an issue now but certainty not at the same level as it was then,” Ganser said. “All of these checks and balances were designed for a Donnie Brasco-style New York City that doesn’t exist anymore and it’s killing our city budget.”
Krishnan’s bill seeks to begin to move the city away from that reality.
“From parks to everywhere else, there are serious flaws in the capital process citywide,” he said. “The fact of the matter is we’re starting with parks, but these measures should be required of all city agencies.”