BRONX — A deputy commissioner at the city’s Department of Design and Construction tried to get her agency to plug her “Sesame Street” actress friend’s children’s book about the High Bridge, DNAinfo New York has learned
The deputy, Lillian Llambelis, asked the DDC to promote actress Sonia Manzano’s book about the Harlem River span on the agency’s website and social media accounts, and to sell the book in the city’s official store in Lower Manhattan, according to DDC sources.
The DDC ultimately shot down Llambelis’ ideas, but the agency’s commissioner, Feniosky Pena-Mora, attended a book reading that the Bronx Children’s Museum held in June.
The agency’s official Twitter feed also posted photos of Manzano — who played Maria on “Sesame Street” — walking the High Bridge and visiting the Bronx museum with Pena-Mora.
Pena-Mora also has a poster of the book, entitled “The Lowdown on the High Bridge,” hanging in a custom-made frame in his office, according to sources.
The book tells the history of the High Bridge, an aqueduct span connecting Washington Heights and High Bridge in The Bronx. Closed for more than 40 years, the bridge was renovated by the city and reopened as a pedestrian walkway in June 2015.
Thrilled to be with SCJ Sotomayor and Sesame Street's Sonia Manzano DREAMING BIG with kids at Bronx Children's Museum pic.twitter.com/eu90w2zEcg— NYC DDC (@NYCDDC) July 25, 2014
The plan to reopen the bridge began under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. DDC, which oversees construction and design of city facilities and property, handled the project.
Manzano’s book was published in conjunction with the Bronx Children’s Museum, which Llambelis helped found in 2005. Llambelis was a board member of the museum from its inception until November 2014, when she joined the DDC.
Even though Llambelis resigned from the board, she is still closely involved with the museum — except now from the DDC’s side, sources said.
Before she stepped down from the board, Llambelis helped plan a new museum building called the Kids’ Powerhouse Discovery Center in Mill Pond Park in The Bronx. DDC oversees the design and construction of the center — which is expected to open in 2017 — because it is being built on city parkland.
DDC insiders told DNAinfo that Llambelis, as deputy commissioner, has been involved in meetings and day-to-day financial decisions about the project — even though her role at the agency is to run education programs geared toward public school students.
The Bronx Children’s Museum also posted a photo on its website in December 2014 — a month after Llambelis joined the DDC — showing her and museum officials at the agency’s Long Island City office celebrating the approval of the center’s design.
DNAinfo previously reported that, since being appointed commissioner in April 2014, Pena-Mora has been accused of making crony hires who lack backgrounds in engineering or architecture. The hires have caused strife among rank-and-file employees, who have seen well-respected managers demoted and stripped of their positions.
Pena-Mora’s hires, coupled with his dictatorial management style, have turned the agency into a toxic workplace and led to an exodus of longtime employees, multiple insiders told DNAinfo.
A seasoned civil servant, Llambelis served as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and as a government and community affairs liaison in the state Attorney General’s Office.
Pena-Mora hired her at the DDC as a deputy commissioner for community partnership and Science, Technology, Engineering, Architecture and Math initiatives, which are geared toward city students.
The DDC said in a statement that Llambelis’s background made her well-qualified for her position.
“Miss Llambelis is a devoted and respected public servant dedicated to working with inner-city school-aged children on educational and career opportunities,” DDC spokeswoman Shavone Williams said.
However, DDC sources said that, despite Llambelis not having a background in engineering or architecture, her reach in the agency goes far beyond education initiatives. Quietly referred to by employees as the “Tyrant in the Tunic,” Llambelis runs roughshod over other divisions, the sources said.
“We strongly feel that her division has been given outsized importance here at DDC with an enormous budget that was not present or needed before the arrival of Llambelis,” one source said.
Williams said Llambelis did not play a role in the development or marketing of Manzano’s book. She added that plans for the Bronx Children’s Museum’s new center began before Llambelis joined the DDC.
DDC sources said that Llambelis has used the DDC to help out other pals, including City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who interned at the state Attorney General’s Office when she worked there.
Llambelis has repeatedly pushed employees in the DDC’s Percent for the Arts program to come up with public arts projects that could be built in Torres’s district in The Bronx, according to sources. Llambelis has even mentioned her connection to Torres when making the demands, sources said.
“We were just a resource for her to help her please Torres,” a DDC source said.
DDC did not respond to questions about Llambelis and Torres.