C.B. 1 wary of city ‘fox’ in charge of construction

BY SAM SPOKONY   |  Community Board 1 leaders remain worried about the impending shutdown of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, and wonder whether the city’s Department of Transportation will be able to fully take over the command center’s role as a kind of public advocate to handle construction complaints.

The construction center, which oversees and coordinates public, private and street construction projects south of Canal St., is set to be phased out by the end of this month. Downtown Express first reported on Jan. 23 that D.O.T. will be stepping in to take over its functions, including project coordination meetings and community outreach.

Now, it’s also clear that those functions will be directly managed by staff through D.O.T.’s Lower Manhattan Borough Commissioner’s Office, which is led by Luis Sanchez, a Bloomberg administration appointee who has remained in office under Mayor de Blasio.

Nicholas Mosquera, a D.O.T. spokesperson, confirmed the staffing details in a Feb. 3 email to Downtown Express.

This transition into D.O.T. hands is creating apprehension among community leaders for two main reasons, given that there are more than 80 unfinished — and sometimes complaint-ridden —  construction projects Downtown.

First, some of them believe the agency doesn’t have a great track record for responding to and dealing with 311 calls from members of the public. Up until now, residents have been largely satisfied with relying on the construction center to communicate their concerns directly to construction managers and city officials.

“I just want to remind everybody of the ramifications of the L.M.C.C.C. being dismantled,” Chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes said at the board’s Financial District committee meeting Feb. 5., pointing out that residents with complaints will now have to call 311.

“And I don’t know how effective 311 has been for you,” Hughes said in a clearly concerned tone, “but that will be your main mechanism moving forward.”

Second, community board members have conflict-of-interest concerns about the fact that D.O.T. — which is in charge of granting permits for construction projects — will soon be overseeing the community’s requests and responses regarding the permitting process.

“L.M.C.C.C. has been a watchdog for people who live and work here,” said Hughes, “and since D.O.T. is also the issuer of permits, we will no longer have that watchdog.”

Board members immediately agreed with her thoughts in that regard.

“We don’t want the fox guarding the hen house,” said Ro Sheffe, chairperson of the FiDi Committee. “We all know about the problems that could cause.”

All of this was being discussed at the Feb. 5 committee meeting because Joseph Simenic, L.M.C.C.C.’s executive director, was present to take questions on the subject of the upcoming transition.

When he was asked about any new updates on the process, Simenic said that would have to wait, explaining that he would have a better idea of what the “final transition” will look like by the final week of February.

However, Simenic mentioned that in addition to working with D.O.T., he has been “spending some time” with the Downtown Alliance — which runs the business improvement district below Chambers St. — seemingly in order to nudge them, to some degree, to take over some of the construction center’s community outreach responsibility.

“I’ve been seeing how [the Alliance] can provide, if they choose to, useful public information based on all the databases we’ve accumulated, which they can retain or update going forward,” said Simenic.

But Nicole Kolinsky, a Downtown Alliance spokesperson, told Downtown Express that, as of now, there have been no discussions about the Alliance assuming any of the “formal responsibilities” of L.M.C.C.C.

“[The Alliance] has had discussions with L.M.C.C.C. about how we could use their data to possibly integrate their database functionality into our operations,” she wrote in a Feb. 6 email, stressing that the talks have gone no further than that.