City official defends Downtown construction center’s closure

Downtown Express photo by Sam Spokony Luis Sanchez, the Department of Transportation’s Lower Manhattan Borough commissioner, at a Community Board 1 meeting last week, with board chairperson, Catherine McVay Hughes.
Downtown Express photo by Sam Spokony
Luis Sanchez, the Department of Transportation’s Lower Manhattan Borough commissioner, at a Community Board 1 meeting last week, with board chairperson, Catherine McVay Hughes.

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  Responding to concerns about the impending shutdown of the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, a top city official came to Community Board 1 last week in an attempt to quell the anxiety.

Luis Sanchez, the Department of Transportation’s Lower Manhattan Borough commissioner, began by stressing that his office is “inheriting” the functions of the L.M.C.C.C., rather than simply taking them over.

“It’s also kind of an adoption, because I think we’re the only agency capable of continuing a lot of those functions, since we’re already doing a majority of the construction coordination in this area,” Sanchez said the Feb. 20 meeting of C.B. 1’s Quality of Life Committee. “We’ve always attended the command center’s meetings, and we’ve help facilitate them, so there is already a strong partnership there.”

The command center, which coordinates public, private and street construction projects south of Canal St., is now set to be phased out on Feb. 28, according to Joe Simenic, the command center’s executive director. The roles of that organization will then be transferred to Sanchez’s office, which is staffed by 10 D.O.T. employees and has overseen construction permits below Canal St. ever since it was established after the 9/11 attacks.

C.B. 1 Chairperson Catherine McVay Hughes, along with other board members, has expressed concerns about how responsive the D.O.T. office will be to community concerns regarding construction complaints. For years, L.M.C.C.C. was seen as a key advocate on behalf of residents and local business, by hosting coordination meetings and appearing each month at the board’s Quality of Life Committee to provide updates and listen to complaints.

During his Feb. 20 remarks, Sanchez committed to either attending the committee meetings each month, or sending a representative. He also promised — as D.O.T. has previously stated — to continue the project coordination meetings and community meetings.

But another key element of the transition will be residents’ ability to quickly contact Sanchez’s office for enforcement of permit regulations. Hughes pointed out that in the past, board members could call Simenic or Robin Forst (who has since gotten a job with the Battery Park City Authority) and feel confident about seeing a swift response.

Sanchez had, earlier in the discussion, encouraged residents and board members with complaints to either call 311 or send an email to his office through the D.O.T. website.

“But who can we call to contact your office immediately?” Hughes asked him. “Who will be our direct link with you?”

Sanchez said it will be “more efficient” for complaints to be made through the D.O.T. website.

“But suppose the problem happens on Saturday or Sunday?” asked Pat Moore, chairperson of the Quality of Life Committee.

The Lower Manhattan Borough commissioner said he will be checking any emails over the weekend.

“In some situations we can address those concerns immediately, but in others we won’t be able to,” said Sanchez. “But if we’re getting emails about a certain project because they’re making a lot of noise on Saturday, you can be sure that on Monday we’re going to be calling that project in for a meeting, to see what was happening, and to guarantee it doesn’t happen again.”

During that same meeting, Hughes also raised new concerns about the D.O.T. transition after learning that Sanchez’s office — like L.M.C.C.C. — constantly faces the possibility of being shut down if it is not renewed by higher authorities.

The borough office, which is funded by the Federal Highway Administration and the New York State Department of Transportation, must be approved for renewal every year, Sanchez said.

Hughes wondered about the possibility it being dismantled in the near future, if the federal and state officials feel the funding is no longer needed.

“We’re definitely not going to be shut down this year,” said Sanchez, although he added that it could potentially happen after 2015. “We’ve always been able to show that there’s still construction going on, that there’s a need for our office, but I can tell you that we’re not going to be here forever.”

Later, in a Feb. 24 phone interview, Hughes remained somewhat anxious about the effect this transition will have on responsive to community complaints, mainly because of the uncertainty and lag time that can occur as a result of 311 calls and bureaucratic email communication.

“We’re just going to have to see how proactive they will be,” she said.

Meanwhile, a coalition of elected officials, also citing concerns about the transition, has asked Sanchez to meet with them to discuss it and “resolve any issues that may emerge” regarding the community-centric aspects of the office’s new functions. The request came in a joint Feb. 19 letter from U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, State Senator Daniel Squadron, Borough President Gale Brewer and Councilmember Margaret Chin.

In response to the letter, D.O.T. spokesperson Nicholas Mosquera said that a meeting between the Lower Manhattan Borough office and the polticians will likely be scheduled soon.

“The office …looks forward to meeting with them to discuss their work in Lower Manhattan,” Mosquera wrote in a Feb. 24 email to Downtown Express.

And aside from D.O.T.-related issues, Hughes expressed frustration with the offices of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who have not commented at all on the impending shutdown of L.M.C.C.C., or the transition to D.O.T.

The command center is only being phased out now because it has not received a renewal of the joint executive orders, from the mayor and governor, which established it in 2004, and which were then renewed in 2011.

“Our community deserves to hear from the mayor and the governor on this,” Hughes said.

Spokespersons for the mayor and governor did not respond to requests

for comment.