Volume 19 Issue 45 | March 23 - 29, 2007

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Maiden Lane on Monday, a few weeks after Con Edison finished most of its work.

Construction center: To know it is not to love it, Downtowners say

By Skye H. McFarlane and Josh Rogers

From the warmth of his restaurant on Maiden Lane, Alex Ferkov watched as workers installed scaffolding in front of his picture windows.
“Ah, this is nothing,” he said, gesturing at the metal poles. In Ferkov’s view, the new obstruction outside his door was just “icing on the cake” compared to the construction woes that he and other small business owners have experienced during the past few years.

The narrow block of Maiden Lane between Nassau St. and Broadway has been under near-constant construction since the Metropolitan Transportation Authority began doing utility work for the new Fulton Transit Hub in 2005. With all or part of the street closed off, the businesses have struggled to receive their deliveries, to get their garbage picked up, and most of all, to attract customers.

Charles Maikish, left, in 2005 with Governor Pataki as they mark the beginning of the cleanup of the Deutsche Bank building.
Through it all, Ferkov and other business owners said, small gestures could have made a difference — a clearer pathway here, some better trash cleanup there, a moratorium on jack-hammering during lunch hour. There were lots of meetings with government representatives, sponsored by the local business improvement district, but few changes were made. To this day, most of the owners aren’t sure exactly who to turn to for help.

“That construction czar, [Charles] Maikish, he even came in here once,” Ferkov said. “He was a super nice guy, but then boom, he was gone. I never heard from him again.”

His nice-guy demeanor and executive experience with the Port Authority were two of the main reasons that Maikish was selected in early 2005 to head up the newly formed Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, overseeing projects costing more than $25 million. The command center was put in place to coordinate the explosion of public and private construction projects Downtown, to mitigate the worst effects of those projects and to communicate with the public about the work taking place.

Yet, two years into its existence, many residents and business owners still do not know what the L.M.C.C.C. is or what it does. Others, who have dealt with the command center more regularly, have grown frustrated at the pace of the agency’s progress towards its larger goals — which include creating comprehensive plans for traffic and pedestrian flow, as well as developing an on-street task force to deal with building code violations and traffic snags.

Even Downtowners who praise the agency for helping them with specific problems say that the command center could do a better job of giving the public access to detailed, real-time information, especially on its Web site.

Maikish, 61, admits that his agency’s record is not perfect, especially as it relates to Maiden Lane. On Feb. 15, during what was supposed to be a lull in Maiden Lane’s construction marathon, a group of Con Edison feeder cables short-circuited, leading to nearly two days of lost power and another two weeks of torn-up streetscape.

“I bless the customers who came in here through all that,” Ferkov said on March 8, staring at the maze of empty seats in Café Health Exchange, the restaurant he opened in 1987 and spent his life savings expanding in 2000. Ferkov said he has lost 20 to 25 percent of his business due to reduced foot traffic.

Maikish said that the command center “absolutely” could have done a better job in communicating with the Maiden Lane businesses about what was going on in February, as well as asking Con Ed to be more considerate in completing its repair work. Still, on the whole, Maikish said his agency is doing the best it can to manage a difficult task with a staff of about 20 and no real enforcement power.

“Are we there yet? No,” Maikish said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “But I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished so far. Think of what it would have been like if we wouldn’t have been here.”

Antsy Agencies

One of the areas in which the L.M.C.C.C. isn’t “there yet” is in the creation of a traffic management plan to accommodate the closed street lanes and thousands of concrete trucks that will accompany the construction of the World Trade Center towers, the Calatrava PATH station at the World Trade Center and the Fulton Transit Hub.

While the command center has developed traffic plans for certain individual projects, Maikish said that the agency needs both more data and more traffic enforcement agents to put an overall scheme into effect. But with construction already creating problems on Lower Manhattan’s labyrinthine streets, many Downtowners would like to see the traffic managed sooner rather than later (later in this case is June, when the city has promised to provide a new crop of traffic agents).

“Street lights and barriers give people an idea of where they can walk or drive, but what we need now is human intervention,” said Eric Deutsch, president of the Downtown Alliance, which runs the Lower Manhattan business improvement district. “The biggest priority has to be the hands-on, day-to-day — if not minute-to-minute — impact of the projects.”

He said he had sympathy for all of the business owners on Maiden Lane. “How could this go wrong and how could this go on for so long,” Deutsch said.

Just a month after the command center told Community Board 1 about its traffic management plans, the city Department of Transportation came before the board to reveal its own proposal for mitigating traffic on lower Broadway — as well as its future plans to develop an overall traffic model for Lower Manhattan.

Asked if the D.O.T.’s plan was the same as the command center’s, Lori Ardito, the D.O.T.’s Lower Manhattan commissioner, gave a heavy sigh and shook her head.

“Their plan is more about getting construction vehicles in and out of the area; [the plans] are not concerned with helping with the congestion,” Ardito said.

Maikish argued that the command center has a valid reason to concern itself with the travel patterns of concrete trucks since concrete, he said, is a perishable commodity. Maikish stressed, however, that the command center is very concerned with maintaining mobility Downtown.

Ardito is not the only one in government who has criticized the command center’s work. Two city officials and a person who had been involved with the rebuilding plans, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said in separate interviews that the center has not done a good job communicating information about construction disruptions with small business owners and residents, either on its Web site or in person. The city officials did not want to publicly criticize the center. An executive with a large development firm working Downtown also said he did not think the agency was doing much.

“They’re focused more on telling a story of what Lower Manhattan will be like in 2010 and not the bread and butter that was the reason they were put into being in the first place,” said one city official. “They’re supposed to deliver the nitty-gritty information for folks who live and work down here.”

He said if the Con Ed problems on Maiden Lane were unavoidable, then the info should have been on the construction center’s Web site.

Maikish told Downtown Express that Maiden Lane would have to be dug up again for duct work and that business owners on the block were informed by the L.M.C.C.C. Ferkov said he heard something to that effect from a construction worker but as of March 8, he had gotten no official notice. Pam Chmiel, another business owner on the block, said given the history, she just assumes the street will be dug up “again and again,” but she did not know it for sure either.

Julie Menin, C.B. 1’s chairperson, said she also thinks the construction center has a communication problem. “Every day I hear from people who live Downtown, work Downtown or visit Downtown and they say to me, ‘Why are they ripping up this street? What’s happening?’ People still do not understand what is going on.”

The community board was an early advocate for the center’s creation because board members were worried about the effects of billions of dollars worth of construction projects proceeding simultaneously.

“The reason why we were in favor of the idea of a centralized construction czar is we didn’t want to be bounced from agency to agency,” Menin said. “They (L.M.C.C.C. officials) need to be out communicating to the community.”

Menin, a Financial District resident, used to own Vine, a restaurant that was hurt by post-9/11 street closures protecting the New York Stock Exchange. The restaurant closed a few years ago. She said the construction center should be fighting for better signs, taxi stands to help struggling restaurants and other improvements to make it easier for people to live and work through the next few years of construction.

“People will move if we don’t make the quality of life better,” she said.

Maikish agreed there were problems with signage, but he insisted that he has fought with government agencies to help Downtown businesses and residents.

Positive Steps

Away from Maiden Lane, there are some residents and business owners who agree with Maikish, saying that his agency has been helpful in resolving their construction-related dilemmas. In particular, they complimented the command center’s community relations director, Robin Forst, a Battery Park City resident and former aide to Councilmember Alan Gerson.

Harry Poulakakos, who is about to open his eighth Lower Manhattan restaurant, said that in the fall of 2005, construction workers ripped up Hanover Square, blocking vehicular access to his largest place, Bayard’s. He was never quite sure what the workers were doing, but by December he stopped believing their “just another month” promises.

“December is my best time and they were going to close it completely,” he said. “They were destroying my business.”

He said he got immediate results after talking with Forst. “I spoke to her at 11 a.m. and at 11 p.m. that night everybody was working to get the job finished,” he said, adding that the street reopened two or three days later and the job was done a week after the call.

P.S. 89 parent and Community Board 1 member Tom Goodkind also complimented Forst, saying that she has been invaluable in his campaign to get construction sites near P.S./I.S. 89 and P.S. 234 to suspend noisy work on days when the schoolchildren have to take statewide standardized tests.

News you can’t use

Despite his gratitude to Forst, Goodkind still has some issues with the command center. In particular, he said that it can be hard to find information on the center’s Web site, which puts a decidedly positive spin on the Downtown rebuilding efforts.

“You have to get past the smiley faces,” Goodkind said.

Concerned about the environmental and health impacts of the omnipresent construction projects, Goodkind often visits to view data from the air quality monitors that are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood. Helping someone else to find a specific air quality readout on the site, Goodkind said, “would be like using a cell phone to walk a blind man to California.”

Though there is a link to the air monitor reports on the site’s front page, it appears just once and takes patience to locate. Reading left-to-right, top-to-bottom, it is the 33rd of 36 major links on the page. Goodkind and other health advocates, including C.B. 1 vice chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes, have also long asked for the monitoring data to be posted in real time, rather than informing residents of toxic “exceedences” days, or even weeks, after a higher-than-normal level of a particular contaminant was in the air.

The site also does not post real-time data on emergency repair work, such as broken water mains or the feeder cable problem on Maiden Lane. Maikish said the exclusion is justified, since emergency repairs are not part of the planned construction.

As for the “nitty-gritty” details about other construction projects, Maikish said that there is simply too much going on for the agency to post it all. Maikish defended the site’s sunny, pro-development disposition, saying, “You certainly don’t want to give the perception that you should hang a sign on Canal St. saying ‘Lower Manhattan is closed for construction.’ It’s a balancing act.”

The sign that the command center has chosen to hang instead, both on its Web site and on banners around Manhattan, is the slogan “This is 2010” accompanied by colorful renderings of to-be-completed projects like the new W.T.C. towers, the transit stations and the W.T.C. memorial. Since the towers are not scheduled to be completed until 2011 or later, some Lower Manhattan residents mock the 2010 banners, saying that they should instead feature renderings of concrete trucks and other construction paraphernalia.

Maikish said that the 2010 dateline works because it is a time frame that “people can envision” and that all the buildings will be topped off, if not open, by that time. 2010 is also the year that the command center is set to be disbanded.

“We go out of existence in 2010 for a reason,” Maikish said. “At that point the need for coordination and mitigation of the construction projects will be finished.”

Filling a need

The need for such mitigation was first addressed by then-Governor George Pataki in October of 2003. In his second semi-annual Lower Manhattan progress report, Pataki called for a construction command center to coordinate all of the planned activity. Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg signed orders creating the center in the middle of 2004. In February 2005, they hired Maikish to run the center at a $200,000 salary.

As the L.M.C.C.C. executive director, Maikish is supposed to report directly to the governor and mayor but he said he has not communicated with Gov. Eliot Spitzer since the new governor took office in January. He does speak regularly with Avi Schick, Spitzer’s economic development leader.

Since Maikish was not given enforcement power over the public authorities or any of the city and state agencies involved Downtown, his longstanding ties to business, community leaders and government officials in Lower Manhattan was seen as an important asset to the job.

Maikish had been with the Port Authority for 28 years, first as an engineer who worked on the construction of the Twin Towers. He rose up the ranks to become the head of the World Trade Center in 1990. He was there for the 1993 terrorist bombing and spearheaded the Port’s efforts to reopen the building. When he left the Port toward the end of the ‘90s, the W.T.C.’s long-promised emergence as a profitable office and retail center was taking hold. Maikish also developed strong relationships with the 1993 victims’ relatives and helped ensure that the six names be included in the new W.T.C. memorial now under construction.

The center still has some money left from $8.5 million worth of grants it received in 2005 from the Federal Transit Administration and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a federally-funded, state-city authority. The Port Authority, which owns the W.T.C. site, granted the center $21.7 million last year. The center is also expecting to get additional funds from the city, state, the F.T.A. and the L.M.D.C.

In response to the complaints about the command center’s past performance, Maikish said that he would hold more town hall meetings to inform the neighborhood about the agency’s work.

He also said that Downtowners who are experiencing problems with traffic, noisy work or dangerous conditions should call 3-1-1 and let the operator know that they have a problem related to Lower Manhattan construction. Eventually, he said, 3-1-1 will route those calls through the L.M.C.C.C.’s Web site, allowing the agency to track complaints — something it does not currently do.

Looking to the future

Because the command center remains the only agency tasked with coordinating construction and informing the public and is directly responsible for the deconstruction of the Deutsche Bank building, many Downtowners continue to hope for the agency to succeed in the future.

According to Chmiel, the owner of the Klatch coffee shop across the street from Café Health Exchange, the command center may even have a chance to redeem itself on Maiden Lane. With the specter of more digging and street repaving to come on the lane, Chmiel wants to work to make the area more attractive and inviting to visitors.

The Downtown Alliance supports her ideas, which include putting up signs at the corner of Maiden Ln. and Broadway to advertise the local businesses, improving the outdoor lighting, and adding visual interest to the street through potted plants or a temporary art installation. However, many of those ideas require approvals from agencies like the D.O.T. — permission that has, so far, been hard to come by.

“Open up the red tape and let some action be taken immediately to help us,” Chmiel pleaded in a March 6 interview. On Wednesday, in a follow-up email, Chmiel said that the plan to beautify the street “has great potential, but we cannot do it without these agencies. Someone needs to make the decision and just do it — stop with all the meetings.”

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