NYC’s new DDC commissioner: COVID-19 emergency offers speedy procurement lessons

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torres-springer ddc
Jamie Torres-Springer

New York Construction News staff writer

New York City can trim years off the implementation of capital construction projects and ensure they remain on time and budget by extending emergency procurement practices introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, says the city’s new design and construction commissioner.

Speaking at a March 24 City Council budget hearing, the day after Jamie Torres-Springer took the helm of the city’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC), he outlined how major emergency projects were completed within months rather than years through streamlined emergency procurement processes.

DDC arranged to build three large COVID-19 Centers of Excellence for Health and Hospitals and Gotham Health in six months rather than six years or more, he said.

“We were freed from the time-consuming system that requires city contracts always to be awarded to the lowest bidder who meets minimum qualification requirements,” Torres-Springer said. “Because of that, we were able to use value-based selection through a Request for Proposals process to award contracts to firms with a demonstrated track record of delivering quality projects on time and on budget.”

The Construction-Manager Build (CM Build) model, not usually possible under city and state-mandated procurement rules, allows the DDC to select a construction management firm, which then manages the overall project and holds the underlying contracts for materials, labor and related services.

“CM Build eliminates the sequential procurement processes of design-bid-build,” Torres-Springer said. “It allows construction to begin earlier, and much like design-build, it ensures critical collaboration between the designer and the builder, which is prevented by design-bid-build.”

He said other changes that sped up work and could be streamlined in the future include reduced public notice requirements and faster approvals from the Office of Management and Budget, the mayor’s office of contract services, and the city’s law department. These changes would result in a much shorter selection process.

“We can also save time on projects if the comptroller’s input is limited to just the items the office is empowered by the city charter to review, which is often not the case now.”

“Many of our infrastructure projects, which remained in construction throughout the pandemic, also saw remarkable progress and were able to be completed well ahead of schedule,” Torres-Springer said. Part of the speed could be attributed to reduced vehicle traffic, “which allowed us to negotiate more favorable street permit requirements.”

“It’s fair to ask why can’t we do this all the time?” he asked. “Why do we have to wait for an emergency to deliver important projects efficiently?”

“The answer is, we don’t.”

Torres-Springer said an example of how permanent improvements can be made is the DDC’s implementation of Design-Build, allowed by the State last year, that will “save time and money by integrating design and construction activities and avoiding separate procurements in many of the same ways I described earlier.

“But Design-Build is only one tool and is not suitable for every construction situation.” Permanent adaptation of some changes implemented during the emergency “could transform the current cumbersome and costly process of city capital delivery,” he said
Torres-Springer made clear that a streamlined construction procurement is compatible with Minority and Women-Owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) guidelines. He said DDC’s MWBE program “remains one of the city’s best and we’re very proud of it and committed to its growth and full utilization.

“In the last five years, our Office of Diversity and Industry Relations has engaged more than 7,500 MWEBEs through internal and external workshops and seminars that enhance technical and business capacity,” he said. “Now we’re building on that with a new business development unit, which will be a pathway of entry into public sector work for MWBEs and a new mentorship program that we’ve received legislative authorization for, which will place emerging MWBs side by side in the field with experienced construction managers, to guide them and provide real world on-the-job experience as prime contractors in implementing our new design-build programs.’

He said DDC has set goals of 30 per cent for both the design portion and the contractor portion “of our contracts to provide more opportunities for MWBE design firms.”

“The use of value-based selection on all of our emergency work delivered very high MWBE utilization rates,” Torres-Springer said.

Torres-Springer said the DDC’s capital commitment plan contains almost $2.8 billion in new commitments in the current fiscal year across the department’s portfolio of responsibilities for more than 20 city agencies.

“This includes $1.5 billion dollars in infrastructure projects and $1.2 billion for our pubic buildings portfolio.”

“The 10-year capital plan includes $8.2 billion for the borough-based jails program related to the closure of Rikers Island, as well as $1.35 billion for the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project to protect Manhattan’s East Side from East 25th Street down to Montgomery Street.”

Torres-Springer said DDC expects the Fiscal Year 2022 budget to grow as funding for contracts delayed by the pandemic are pushed into the next year.

The DDC’s operating budget next year includes $122 million for personnel services and $28 million for “other than personnel services”. The department has a budgeted head count of 1,281.

“Our total operating budget is sourced with $133 million in IFA (Inter-Fund Agreements) funding and $16 million in city tax levy funding, and a half-a-million dollars in federal funding,” he said.

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