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Costs Balloon for City Construction Projects Designed by Elite Architects

 The Central Park Precinct stationhouse was originally supposed to cost $26 million. It more than doubled to $61 million.
The Central Park Precinct stationhouse was originally supposed to cost $26 million. It more than doubled to $61 million.
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Department of Design and Construction

NEW YORK CITY — A city program in which renowned architects design public facilities has led to beautiful buildings — with skyrocketing costs and long delays, according to sources and records.

An NYPD precinct station house on Staten Island that officers have nicknamed “The Stapler” surged from an original price tag of $3 million to more than $73 million by the time it opened in 2013.

The renovation of a Central Park police station house ended up costing $61 million, more than double the initial estimate of $26 million.

Meanwhile, the construction of a new Queens Library branch in Hunters Point that was originally supposed to be $20 million will now likely cost $30 million. Library and city officials initially started allocating money for the project in 2004, but it’s still being built.

 The Spring Street Salt Shed opened last year, costing $23 million. The facility, which holds salt for the Sanitation Department, was originally supposed to cost $10 million.
The Spring Street Salt Shed opened last year, costing $23 million. The facility, which holds salt for the Sanitation Department, was originally supposed to cost $10 million.
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Department of Design and Construction

All of these projects are part of the city Department of Design and Construction’s Design Excellence program.

DDC sources told DNAinfo New York that the program’s emphasis on design, as well as a problematic budgeting process, have allowed these projects and others to go far over cost and fall behind schedule.

“I love the program, but it's gone off the rails, particularly with NYPD and Queens Library projects,” a DDC insider said.

The DDC oversees billions in construction and renovation of city facilities. But the actual design and work is done by private contractors that the agency picks.

In 2004, during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, the DDC created the Design Excellence program with the thought that civic architecture could create marvels of design and innovation while not being overly expensive and time-consuming.

Under the program, the DDC biannually selects two dozen elite and up-and-coming architecture firms that can then bid on designing city projects of varying scale and size.

The program, which last month picked its most recent pool of firms, focuses on quality when awarding a contract — not the lowest bid, according to DDC sources. A firm that is picked receives a hefty design fee based on a percentage of the construction budget.

Award-winning architect Rafael Vinoly, who designed Jazz at Lincoln Center, dreamed up the look of the 52,000-square-foot 121st Precinct station house in Mariners Harbor.

On its website, Vinoly’s firm — which received $4.5 million for the design — describes how the station house’s second floor “cantilevers 90 feet toward Richmond Avenue in a symbolic gesture of community engagement.”

Police officers refer to the building as “The Stapler” because of its resemblance to the device. 

When the $73 million precinct opened in 2013, a city Office of Management and Budget official decided not to attend the ribbon-cutting because of the huge cost overruns, according to a source.

DDC sources said that while the Design Excellence buildings are beautiful, they drain tax dollars.

“The initial goal of the program was to keep design just as important as schedule and budget without causing the delays or overruns. But it is now as if design has taken over everything — with schedule and cost taking second and third place,” a DDC source said.

The source pointed to renovation of the Central Park precinct, which cost $2,400 per square foot, or $61 million.

Karlsberger, the firm that designed the precinct’s facelift, received $4.3 million as a fee. It later went bankrupt and folded in 2011, but before going out of business, it designed plans for a new 40th Precinct station in The Bronx.

Karlsberger collected $1 million for that design, which the city approved in 2008. But the project languished due to NYPD capital budget constraints, and Karlsberger’s contract expired.

The project was later revived in 2013, with a new design, but construction won’t start until 2017. The original cost for the building was $17 million but it’s now expected to cost $77 million, according to DDC records.

Other over-budget and delayed projects in the Design Excellence program include:

The Hunters Point library, which jumped from $20 million to $30 million. It’s been delayed for years because the design, by award-winning architect Steven Holl, was initially too expensive for construction, DDC sources said. The branch is now expected to open in late 2017.

• A 2,900-square-foot addition to the Kew Gardens Hills Library, which was originally budgeted at $3.1 million. The addition, designed by architecture firm WORKac, eventually cost $9.628 million, or $3,300 per square foot.

The Spring Street Salt Shed, which had its grand opening this past fall, ended up costing $23 million, or $3,100 per square foot. The original cost for the shed — which holds salt for city Sanitation Department trucks — was $10 million.

DDC sources said agency officials justified the 130-percent cost increase by reasoning that the shed had to be a high-profile architectural piece because it was in wealthy SoHo.

Manhattan Districts 1/2/5 Garage, which houses Sanitation Department trucks, went from an original cost of $147 million to $214 million. Architecture firm Dattner Architects, which came up with the Spring Street Shed’s look, also designed the garage and took home a $13 million fee.

• A new Staten Island Animal Care Center, which cost $8.2 million, nearly tripled from its original estimate of $3.1 million.

Some DDC sources placed much of the blame for cost overruns on the city agencies — or the clients, as they’re called — that ask for the projects.

“The client reigns,” a DDC source said. “If they can come up with the money, they’re going to do it.”

The DDC sources said that, due to city rules on the capital budget process, when agencies initially conceive a new facility or renovation job, they have to provide a cost estimate, even though they haven’t come up with an actual design.

Inevitably, the agency bean counters will always low ball the cost, the sources said.

After the initial budget is set for a project, DDC gets involved, helping to figure out what the agency truly wants — and how much it will really cost.

David Burney, the DDC commissioner for much of the Bloomberg administration who helped start the Design Excellence program, said that many projects cost more than expected and were delayed.

“A lot of these city projects certainly exceed the original budget and the original schedule,” said Burney, who now teaches at Pratt Institute.

But he said that cost overruns and delays have been an industry problem for decades and are not unique to the program.

Burney also defended the program’s use of the best architects, noting that it’s a myth that good design is “only for the wealthy, only for the oligarchs or the 1 percenters.”  Rather, he said, the best architects do the best work when money is tight.

“It’s the innovative designers that get the most out of the small budgets,” he said.

Burney said that city projects also get delayed due to rules about change orders. When contractors come to DDC with additional work and costs for a project, the agency must get the approval of the Office of Management and Budget before the changes can move forward.

This delays the process, Burney said. The former commissioner said he has advocated for allowing the DDC to have more control over some cost increases.

The DDC said in a statement that the Design Excellence program does not affect the cost of a project.

“In fact, many of the changes in the budgets are due to market conditions, changes in project scopes, regulatory requirements, changes in building codes, fire protection codes and the cost of materials,” the agency said. “This is the same as in any building project, no matter how small or large.”

Queens Library spokeswoman Joanne King said architects and the DDC design a building within a certain budget. But as the process moves forward, sometimes over years, market conditions change and costs can increase.

“Two years later, the design goes out for actual bid and the actual bids may be drastically different from the estimate,” King said.

The DDC may then have to change the design to lower the cost, or the library will have to reach out for more funding from elected officials. This leads to more delays, King said.

However, a DDC source said that the Hunters Point branch is a perfect example of putting too much value in design. The branch’s design had to be overhauled after it first went out to bid because no contractor could build it within budget, the source said.

“If you are a New York City design firm working for DDC and you can't submit a design for a project that can be delivered on time and on budget, you should be fired,” a DDC source said. “If you'd like to eat up cost and schedule, go work for Vornado or Silverstein. Don't eat up taxpayer dollars.”