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New York civils commissioner on slicing open the Big Apple

A New York infrastructure chief has spoken of the challenges and joys of his role, along with plans to set up regular meetings with those in similar positions in London and other major cities.

Feniosky Peña-Mora, commissioner of the New York City Department of Design and Construction (NYC DDC), told NCE that delivering major civils schemes in the Big Apple was like “performing brain surgery on a patient that goes to work, goes to the theatre and enjoys exercise”.

In a wide-ranging interview, he said more could be done to learn from the experiences of busy cities around the world, and revealed he hoped to meet with key figures next year.

The NYC DDC has a portfolio of more than 800 schemes due to take place over the next five years, with a combined value of almost $10bn (£6bn). As well as looking after roads, water mains, sewers and storm water drains, the department covers parks, libraries, jails and waste transfer stations among other built assets.

“New York City is a 24/7 place, 365 days a year,” said Peña-Mora. “We can not slow it down, and this makes it extremely challenging. We have made it an art to carry out infrastructure works here.”

He cited a scheme that was carried out near world famous performing arts venue the Lincoln Center.

“We had to put a water main shaft there, and we were handed a three-year schedule that had functions every single night,” he said. “We used micro-tunneling rather than cut and cover to avoid disruption.”

On a project by tourist hot spot the Rockefeller Center, no ‘black cars’ – the limousines dropping off famous film and music stars – were to be disrupted.

“If this was somewhere else, we would have closed the road,” said the commissioner. “As it was, we studied ahead how the black cars came in before deciding where to lay our water main. We could only work at certain hours, and in the morning it had to look like we had never been there.”

There was one occasion when this rule of staying out the way was turned on its head – when a construction project became part of iconic TV show Good Morning America.

“We were planning all sorts of fencing but the producer said they wanted to see the construction happening – they used it as a backdrop.”

This brought its own pressures, of course.

“It was a very safe site,” said Peña-Mora. “No-one took their hard hat off.”

The department is tasked with achieving at least a silver rating for its buildings through environmental system LEED, and has been aiming even higher in many instances.

“We find sustainability often combines with aesthetics and desirability,” said the commissioner. “We did some garages for garbage trucks next to some very hip multi-million-dollar apartments. The community was very concerned, but we were able to create a building that blends in, using green roofs, moving louvres and rainwater harvesting.”

New York is expecting to grow by more than 1M people over the next decade and so faces many similar challenges to London – plus some of its own.

“The demographics are interesting,” says Peña-Mora. “We are expecting different nationalities to continue emigrating to New York City. We need to be mindful of different cultures in how we work.

“Similar to London, we need to continue growth to maintain quality of life for residents.”

Many different agencies are involved in infrastructure development in the US city, with ownership sometimes shifting along the length of a single road.

“We have to co-ordinate very closely with various bodies,” said Peña-Mora.

This is not where the co-ordination should stop, according to the commissioner. He wants to spend more time learning from other cities in the world facing similar challenges to his own.

“I am trying to convene a meeting of directors of construction works in major comparable cities, including London,” he said.

“We use some of the same contractors; Skanska works in London and New York. They bring expertise from one to the other but sometimes we as commissioners work in silos. I hope we will build a consensus by the end of this year and meet sometime next year.”

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