Opening Statement Committee on Parks and Recreation “Parks Capital Projects”



Int 407: A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to notice of changes to capital projects implemented by the department of parks and recreation.


Int 1340:A Local Law to amend the administrative code of the city of New York, in relation to work performed on parks department capital projects

JANUARY 19, 2017



Good afternoon. My name is Mark Levine and I am the Chair of the Council’s Committee on Parks and Recreation.

At this hearing, the committee will examine the Parks Department’s capital process, and will consider two bills which would improve public reporting on this process: Intro 407, whose lead sponsor is Councilmember Jimmy Vacca, and Intro 1340, whose lead sponsor is Councilmember Ritchie Torres.

There is no issue under the purview of this committee, and few issues in the Council as a whole, which elicits as much consternation and dismay among my colleagues as the parks capital process.

Dog runs which take five years to complete. Comfort stations which cost more than $2 million.  Budgets that grow by hundreds of thousands of dollars after their initial cost estimates.

Nearly every Council Member has their share of such stories, and we’ll hear about many of them today.

Commissioner Silver has heard these concerns, and he deserves credit for placing a high priority on improving the department’s capital process.  And it’s important that in this hearing we will not rehash the greatest hits of problem projects that took place under the previous administration. That’s why we will focus exclusively on the past three years, in an effort to understand the state of the capital process today.

Specifically we will look at four categories of challenges:

  • Long timelines and unexpected delays

  • High costs and budget overruns

  • Consistency and timeliness of communication with Councilmembers and the public

  • Contracting and payment problems

The state of parks capital projects in my own district in uptown Manhattan illustrates many of these challenges.

There are currently 16 active, fully-funded parks capital projects in the 7th Council district, half of which were actually funded before I took office in 2014. But in the past three years not one of these 16 projects has reached completion, and only 4 of the 16 have thus far even made it to the construction stage.

The Booker T. Washington playground reconstruction project, for example, was funded 4½ years ago and is not expected to be completed for at least 3 more years--giving it at least a 7-year timeline.. The 137th-139th street renovation project of the Broadway Malls, as another example, was also funded 4½ years ago and construction is not expected to be completed until at least 2019 or even 2020--likely giving it at least a 6-year timeline.  And the cases are not unique.  Approximately ¾ of the active projects in my district have faced a delay in at least one phase of the capital process.

The costs of the parks projects in my district also illustrate the elevated price tags that have become so common: $1.7m for three blocks of sidewalk repair in Riverside Park; $1.6m for a comfort station reconstruction in Carmansville Playground; and $1.8m for basketball court repair in Morningside Park.

But the high initial cost estimates are not the end of the story. Approximately half of the 16 active projects in my district have had their budgets adjusted upward since they were initially funded.  And since most of the projects are still at an early stage the odds are good that there will be even more cost adjustments ahead.

These challenges are unfortunately not unique to the 7th council district, as you’ll hear shortly from my colleagues.  And the frustration of many of us is compounded by the fact that we often see larger and more complicated projects in our districts completed more quickly by other agencies.

The School Construction Authority, for example, can often build a new school from scratch in 3-4 years. The SCA has had an average on-time record of 99% over the past 4 years.

Similarly DOT has an 100% on-time performance for bridge capital projects over the past 3 years.

Even the State Parks Department, which has a number of properties here in the five boroughs, completes projects in relatively speedy fashion. I have witnessed this first-hand as they are on track to complete a greenhouse construction project in my district at Riverbank State Park less than a year after the funding was put in place.

In fact the City’s Parks Department itself has shown at times that it can complete projects in relatively expeditious fashion.  After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Mayor Bloomberg pushed to have all beaches reopened by the following Memorial Day, requiring a massive reconstruction effort of boardwalks, comfort stations and other infrastructure.  The Parks Department did indeed meet this ambitious goal, showing that a faster timeline is possible when there is sufficient political will.

Contractors working on Parks projects report a problem which indirectly complicates and delays capital projects system-wide: the remarkably high rate at which invoices are rejected for payment.  The problems have become so serious that established contractors are increasingly choosing simply not to bid on Parks Department work.  Lack of adequate bidders has in turn made procurement more time-consuming and has likely led to higher costs.

Councilmembers funding Parks projects in their districts too often face the frustration of not knowing when and why projects are delayed, and not being aware of contracting problems.  This makes it impossible for us to keep community members accurately informed.

The Parks Capital Tracker is in fact a major step forward in transparency, and one which Commissioner Silver should be commended for. The Tracker makes it easy to see start and completion dates of the design, procurement, and construction phases, and it contains helpful descriptions of the status of active projects.

Several key pieces of information are missing from the Tracker, however:

  • The date at which projects were fully funded

  • The names of the Councilmember and/or other elected officials who funded the project

  • The names of the contractors

  • The cause for delays in any of the phases

  • Information on budget changes

Intro 1340, by Councilmember Torres, would mandate that Parks provide this missing information directly to Councilmembers on a quarterly basis for all projects they have funded.  Intro 407, by Councilmember Vacca, would require that Parks inform Councilmembers in real time when projects they have funded undergo change orders.

Additionally, Intro 1340 would require that Parks inform Councilmembers and contractors when invoices for capital work are rejected, including the reason for the rejection and how the problem can be remedied.

I look forward to hearing the testimony of a wide range of stakeholders on the many important issues we are discussing today.

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