Testimony to City Council on Reporting on Parks Capital Expenditures

New York City Council Committee on Parks & Recreation: Hearing on Int. 1680, in Relation to Reporting on Park Capital Expenditures
December 5, 2017
Emily Walker, Director of Outreach & Programs

Good morning, my name is Emily Walker, and I am the Director of Outreach & Programs at New Yorkers for Parks. I want to thank the City Council Committee on Parks and Recreation for inviting us to speak on this important issue today. As the citywide, independent advocate for parks and open spaces throughout New York City, the process of capital improvements in parks has long been of great interest to us.

NY4P has long understood that the capital process for parks is a broken one, and the new legislation being discussed today reflects that deep frustration with the process – a frustration we believe is shared by everyday New Yorkers, members of the City Council, and the agency itself. In 2014, New Yorkers for Parks undertook a detailed survey of the process of capital projects management as it related to not just the Parks Department, but other City agencies that complete capital construction projects. Our findings showed that other City agencies were often able to execute capital projects more quickly, nimbly, and under-budget than Parks. These findings shaped a set of recommendations to NYC Parks that we are proud to say have had real impacts on how the agency manages this process. While we have stated this before, we believe it is still worth noting that the nature of parks make them inherently more challenging to improve – there are simply more stakeholders, more varied kinds of construction projects, and a procurement system beyond the agency’s control that result in some of the frustrations we’ve heard expressed today.

Despite these frustrations, we do want to commend NYC Parks on the changes it has implemented regarding the capital process. Many of these changes have made the process more transparent to the public, such as the development of the Parks Capital Tracker tool. This tool provides an invaluable service to the public in terms of understanding the process of how parks get built; what phase a specific project is in at any given time; and when folks can expect to see their park projects completed.

However, we would encourage NYC Parks to make this tool more readily available to the public through the home page of the NYC Parks website, as it is still not apparent where to find this tool within the site. There is valuable information kept within the Capital Tracker that could clarify the status of park renovations for the everyday users of a given space, but without an easy or intuitive way to find this tool, it will fail to serve its purpose in changing the public narrative about park capital improvements. Recent Mayoral and Council funding commitments to the capital division at Parks have allowed the agency to continue to build the ranks of staff, which has also resulted in a more streamlined capital process. It is our understanding that Parks has made strides in fostering a greater sense of staff accountability and empowerment within the capital division, while also minimizing the implementation of change orders.

Regarding today’s legislation specifically, we recognize the need for more clarity about where things stand in the capital process, especially in light of the significant funding commitments made by Councilmembers citywide to improve parks in their districts. We do have some concerns that some pieces of the legislation may have the unintended effect of slowing down the overall process by adding another layer of required reporting, without funding to provide additional staff to take on these tasks.

However we do agree with the following changes to the Tracker with some caveats, namely:

  • Sharing information on project delays would go a long way toward accountability and transparency, but do not feel that NYC Parks has enough capital staff capacity to regularly report on any such delays.
  • Attaching the Council District and Community District information to a given project in the Capital Tracker makes sense, as this is information that already exists on the NYC Parks website for each open space in the agency’s purview. However, the Capital Tracker should be easy to find on Parks’ website to begin with.  
  • We would like to see clarity on the reporting requirements that ask for the ‘average’ amount of time for project completion, as well as the total number of capital projects currently under the NYC Parks jurisdiction. For the first requirement, it’s unclear if the average would be a mean or a median, and we believe this distinction would impact the reported figure that the Council seeks to know.
  • We also believe the requirement around the total number of capital projects is unclear as written – since many projects in the pipeline are only partially funded, it’s unclear if projects that have had some, but not all, funding allocated would be included in this tally. Additionally, the legislation as written doesn’t stipulate how to account for capital projects that are bundled across a borough, which is a common tactic used by the agency.

New Yorkers for Parks does believe that more steps could be taken to make the capital expenditure process more transparent, and we hope our comments today have helped the Council and Parks Committee consider ways to reasonably improve this process for both the City Councilmembers who provide vital funding for park improvements in their districts, as well as the everyday New Yorkers who benefit from these improvements. We look forward to working with both the Council and NYC Parks on continuing to reform the system of capital projects. Thank you for the opportunity to speak, and I welcome any questions you might have.

Download the pdf of our testimony.