Volume 20 Issue 10 | July 20 - 26, 2007

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

Charles Maikish, right, confronted construction managers outside 4 Albany St. Monday, during a tour of Downtown in his last week as leader of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center. He told them to get workers directing the traffic and cleaning the street immediately. TOP RIGHT:
Maikish told construction workers to move this generator blocking the temporary bikeway along West St. BOTTOM:
Maikish said he was still “haunted” by the problems Maiden Lane businesses had with construction crews repeatedly ripping up the street.

As he walks his last walk, construction czar cracks whip but sees progress too

By Skye H. McFarlane

There is an electrical generator blocking part of the bike path, and Charles Maikish isn’t happy about it. He leans over the green construction fence and flashes his credentials to the contractors, who are busy working on an access road in front of the World Financial Center. Maikish tells the workers to move the generator. He tells a colleague to come back later and make sure the path is clear. By the next day, the generator is humming safely away from inside the construction site.

It may be Maikish’s last week as the executive director of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, but his agency’s job — to coordinate and mitigate the impact of the Downtown rebuilding effort — is far from over.

“It’s about the diligence,” Maikish said Monday as he took the Downtown Express on a tour of Lower Manhattan’s many construction zones. “There needs to be a continued, if not ramped-up, focus that the plans that have been agreed to…are complied with. If we get lax on that, it’s like throwing clothes on a chair one night. You say it’s just one night, but then all of a sudden you have a pile and you say, ‘What happened?’”

Friday will be the last day on the job for Maikish, a Port Authority veteran who became Downtown’s “construction czar” in 2005. The command center has not yet chosen a replacement, but Bob Harvey, the agency’s head of capital planning and construction, will serve as interim director. As Maikish looked back on his tenure Monday, he was resolutely proud of what he and the command center have accomplished, while at the same time acknowledging that there have been mistakes and roadblocks along the way.

Monday’s tour offered ample examples of the problems posed by having more than 60 major construction projects progressing simultaneously on the dense, narrow streets of Lower Manhattan. On Greenwich St., Maikish pointed out a problem solved. In the spot where Port Authority trucks had been tracking piles of mud into the neighborhood, a newly assigned worker stood hosing down the street, watching the nearby sewer grates to make sure they didn’t become blocked up.

Yet, just a block away, at 4 Albany St., workers on the site of what will become a W Hotel were busy creating a new problem. Without a permit or traffic controls, the workers were swinging full bulldozer loads out over the street and dumping the debris into trucks. Maikish confronted the project manager, who pleaded his case, saying they’d just be loading for a few minutes to finish up their work for the day. Maikish told them to get some workers directing traffic and cleaning the street immediately. Next time, he said, they would need to get a permit to close part of the street before they load up the trucks.

“Contractors and project managers will always push the envelope. These guys didn’t want to go and get a permit; they thought they’d get away with it,” Maikish said, later adding, “It’s like making sure the kids keep their toys in the toy box.”

According to Maikish, violations and fines seldom convince contractors to comply with health, safety and environmental regulations. It is far more effective, he said, to use the leverage of future permits and trucking access to persuade builders to clean up their acts. If that doesn’t work, Maikish said, then a stop-work order will usually get a contractor’s attention.

To keep an eye on Downtown builders and traffic, the command center now has a 58-member “enforcement task force” made up of highway inspectors, building inspectors and N.Y.P.D. traffic agents. With five major projects slated for the area around 4 Albany, Maikish said the command center might consider stationing a task force agent or two in Greenwich South on a regular basis.

Maikish called Greenwich South a “pinch point” because of its high level of development and limited space for cars, trucks and pedestrians. Other pinch points include Church St., where the construction of the W.T.C. East Bathtub will coincide with work on two major transit hubs, and the Fulton corridor, where three major streetwork projects will collide with the building of a 75-story residential tower on Beekman St.

“We’re just starting the real crescendo of construction,” Maikish said, adding that 2008 will likely be the peak of the construction boom.

Despite the coming crescendo, Maikish said he never considered staying at his post beyond the two years he originally agreed to when he accepted the job.

“You have just so much psychic energy you can expend,” Maikish said.

Maikish plans to take some time off to consider his next career move. As a Battery Park City resident, he intends to stay involved with Downtown organizations like the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. He ardently dismissed suggestions that he is leaving the command center because of criticisms, made by residents and some government officials, that the L.M.C.C.C. has not done enough to communicate and help out with day-to-day construction problems.

Maikish readily admitted that there have been problems. He said that he is still “haunted” by Maiden Ln., where local business have endured more than two years of having the street ripped up, paved over, and ripped up again, sometimes without notice or explanation. He also took responsibility for the original direction of the command center’s Web site,

The site was widely criticized for promoting pretty images of Lower Manhattan in 2010 while making detailed information, like construction schedules and air monitoring data, hard to find. Maikish said the agency was working to correct those missteps — the Web site has already been overhauled and the city’s Fulton St. project has already demonstrated more coordination and communication than the Metropolitan Transportation Authority did on Maiden Ln. — but that Monday morning quarterbacking during such a large and complicated process is unfair.

The other area where the command center and other rebuilding agencies have been criticized is at the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty St. The deconstruction of the 41-story office tower, which was damaged and contaminated on 9/11, has been fraught with accidents, delays and cost overruns.

Calling the building a “tombstone,” Maikish said Monday that he had not wanted the command center to manage the demolition, since it was not a part of the agency’s core mission. However, despite the revival of the building’s owner agency, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Maikish said the command center will continue to manage the Deutsche Bank project until the building is down. At this point, that will be sometime “within a couple of months” of the Dec. 31 deadline.

Citing big accomplishments, like area-wide trucking schedules, and simple fixes, like exhaust vents under the sidewalk shedding at Broadway and Fulton St., Maikish argued that the neighborhood would be far worse off without a construction command center.

Community Board 1 agrees. Despite having had numerous tense discussions with the command center about neighborhood safety and quality of life, the board’s W.T.C. Committee unanimously passed a resolution in June saying that the command center should continue to oversee Downtown reconstruction as an independent agency. The command center currently reports directly to the mayor and the governor.

The resolution came in response to news that the L.M.D.C. in May had formed a sub-committee to discuss “L.M.C.C.C. issues.” Many Downtowners speculated that the state-dominated development corporation, which oversees the command center’s finances, would try to take more control over command center operations.

To date, no such move has been made. Maikish said the sub-committee is deliberating slowly and that this lack of urgency speaks to the fact that the command center is doing a good job.

Maikish is leaving behind an agency that is fully funded, fully staffed and operating with a five-year business plan. However, for the agency to fulfill its mission, he said it will need its parents in city and state government to be supportive. Maikish said the agency will also need a new director who can focus on the details — someone who will to walk the streets and talk to contractors and government agencies to resolve problems.

But regardless of what any agency does, Maikish believes the neighborhood will soon emerge bigger and better than it was before 9/11. He hopes that residents and businesspeople will someday be able to look back with humor and pride on having been a part of the sometimes painful, but ultimately important, rebuilding process.

“You know that old song, ‘Ain’t no stopping us now?’” Maikish asked as he looked out over the steel rising on the World Trade Center site. “That should be the theme song for Lower Manhattan.”

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