constructive criticism

Epic $62M Landmarks Commission HQ Project Building History of Cost Overruns

A rendering of a meeting room planned for the Landmarks Preservation Commission's new, under-construction offices at 253 Broadway.
A rendering of a meeting room planned for the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s new, under-construction offices at 253 Broadway. Graphic: Courtesy of the Department of Design and Construction

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It took nine months and $8 million to build a two-story library near Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx last year.

Meanwhile, a project to repair office space and construct a hearing room for the city Landmarks Preservation Commission’s new home has ballooned to an estimated $62 million — and the completion date has been delayed four years.

The budgeted cost has jumped by $33 million since 2016 due to structural problems discovered inside the historic Postal Telegraph Building in Lower Manhattan, according to records from the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC).

The expected bill dwarfs the commission’s $7.2 million annual operating budget.

“DDC has to get better with rolling with scope changes,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the nonprofit Center for an Urban Future.

A Costly Move

Near the end of Mike Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure, the commission asked for additional space, noting its staff had grown 35% “to meet demand for the increasing number of permit applications.”

The Landmarks Commission’s move — from the Municipal Building at 1 Centre St. into six floors at the landmarked 253 Broadway, near Murray Street  — was approved by the city’s budget office and the department that oversees office space.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission's current hearing room in the Municipal Building
The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s current hearing room in the Municipal Building Photo: Screengrab/New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission/YouTube

The expanded office space and modern hearing room inside the city-owned building initially was expected to be ready by December 2017, records show. But the project is currently 39% complete and is now set to be finished in Spring 2021, according to DDC.

“A lot of additional work was added since the project was created,” said Ian Michaels, a DDC spokesperson, noting some of the repairs were tied to unavoidable safety measures.

Engineers discovered a leaky roof, asbestos and damaged terra-cotta ceilings, he said. They also cited needs to remove abandoned wiring, repair water damage from old leaks, restore sidewalk vaults and install a new central exhaust line for bathrooms to get up to code.

The issues have led to 119 so-called “work change” orders so far, Michaels said.

A Storied Past

Mayor Robert F. Wagner created the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1965 to protect historic and architecturally significant structures. The agency, comprised of a panel of 11 commissioners supported by a staff of 84, receives around 14,000 applications a year from property owners seeking to make changes to their landmark buildings.

Commission staff also identify buildings, neighborhoods or scenic areas that could potentially be designated as landmarks.

Hearings currently take place almost every Tuesday at the commission’s offices on the ninth floor of 1 Centre St. The hearing room consists of a large table surrounded by chairs off to the side and a projector on one wall.

Lower Manhattan's 253 Broadway, the future home of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission
Lower Manhattan’s 253 Broadway, the future home of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Over the years, the commission has occasionally moved hearings to a larger location to accommodate bigger crowds. That happened during the landmark review of a proposed addition to the Parke Bernet building in 2007, when agency officials scheduled the hearing inside the Surrogate’s Courthouse across the street.

The commission also found alternate hearing rooms while considering landmarking two buildings set to be turned into an Islamic cultural center, dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque,” in 2010. It made do with auditoriums at Pace University and Hunter College.

The buildings were never designated landmarks.

As for the current construction, Michaels said the Landmarks construction job predated a process through which DDC evaluates projects before greenlighting any work, to head off cost overruns.

In 2019, the department fielded 170 such requests from other city agencies, with 53% returned for “further review,” said DDC Deputy Commissioner Andrew Hollweck.

Historic Challenges

Construction began in 2017, four years after the plan was first approved, city records show. Three construction firms with the lowest bids either withdrew from the project or were deemed unable to do the work, documents reveal.

None of those firms responded to requests seeking comment. A representative at E&A Restoration, which landed the contract, did not return calls.

The Syosset-based construction firm also has been tapped to build a gun locker and other spaces for city correction officers inside the Bronx’s Horizon Juvenile Center. That contract has doubled to $55 million, THE CITY reported in November.

Over the past three weeks of inquiries from THE CITY, officials have struggled to nail down the current expected cost for the Landmark Commission construction job.

The city’s capital projects tracker lists the “budget forecast” at $74 million.

“That’s wrong,” according to DDC’s Michaels, who was unable to explain what that figure was based on.

The $62 million estimated price tag is not only nearly eight times what it cost to build the Bronx library, but far exceeds the cost to construct other branches from scratch in recent years.

The new Queens Library at Hunters Point cost $41 million to build from scratch.
The new Queens Library at Hunters Point cost $41 million to build from scratch. Photo: Christine Chung/THE CITY

The sleek library in Kensington, Brooklyn, finished in 2012, ran $15 million. The much-discussed library branch that opened in Long Island City last year cost $41 million.

DDC officials contend the LPC project is unique because the work is being done inside a historic building that dates to 1894.

Last week the City Council passed a bill introduced by Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) that would create a more robust online public capital projects tracker.

All told, DDC counts more than 850 ongoing projects and the city made over $10 billion in new capital commitments in the current fiscal year.

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