The Adams administration is quietly pushing a plan in Albany that would make the city's Department of Design and Construction a state authority, which could allow it to speed up construction by bypassing some processes for major capital projects, including public and expert review.

The proposed plan, which city officials are hoping to see incorporated as legislation in the state budget, would reshape the way the city goes about building a wide array of infrastructure — from libraries and firehouses to streetscapes and art installations.

Supporters say the new authority would allow the city’s main construction manager to avoid some of the cumbersome contracting processes that typically slow down city projects; critics say it could shortchange the public on design quality and equity.

City officials provided Gothamist a summary of the plan, which they said is still being negotiated with state lawmakers.

In an interview with Gothamist, the Department of Design and Construction Commissioner, Thomas Foley, rejected the notion that the public would no longer have an opportunity to weigh in on the design of city projects.

“Our community interaction remains the same,” Foley said. “We'll still be presenting to the community board at various phases and we will still be presenting to the design commission at various phases of design.”

But in general, state authorities come with expanded powers as well as removal of oversight.

In this case, the new authority would remove city projects under $100 million — a significant chunk of the construction agency's portfolio — from the review and approval of the New York City Public Design Commission.

Formerly known as the Art Commission, the Public Design Commission was established more than a century ago as part of the City Beautiful Movement, which sought to improve the aesthetic environment for city dwellers. The 11-member body is mostly made up of mayoral appointees, including experts in architecture, landscape design and art, as well as representatives from cultural institutions, who meet monthly on a pro bono basis to review and vote on the art and design of city projects.

As part of its current review process, the commission may hold hearings to gather public feedback on the design of city projects.

“That's really our concern,” said Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the Municipal Art Society of New York, a civic organization that is a major voice on urban design and planning in the city. “Is this authority going to continue to engage communities in the process of refining and defining projects that get built in New York or is it going to reduce the amount of public access that people will have to influence projects?”

Goldstein said the commission, which was created with the support of the Municipal Art Society, “was actually put in place in part because we not only wanted experts looking at the design, but we also wanted a public forum for input on public projects.”

The Department of Design and Construction, which serves as a construction manager for other city agencies, currently has 830 projects in design and construction totaling more than $9 billion, according to city officials.

Matthew Clarke, executive director of the Design Trust for Public Space, a nonprofit advocacy group, also expressed some unease with the city’s plan.

“We’re supportive of improving the City’s ability to procure and deliver necessary capital projects,” he said in a statement. “However, these advances cannot come at the expense of design excellence, which has a proven record of making New York a safe, welcome, and exciting place to live and visit.”

In recent years, the issue of equity and inclusion has also come to the fore in the design of public infrastructure.

The design commission’s 2021 annual report defined its mission as advocating “for innovative, sustainable, and equitable design of public spaces and civic structures, with a goal of improving the public realm and therefore related services for all New Yorkers throughout the five boroughs.”

I can tell you having reviewed thousands of projects, the Public Design Commission is the only structural mechanism for social, racial, and environmental equity in the city's capital projects regulatory system.
Justin Moore, an executive director at the commission from 2016 to 2020.

“I can tell you having reviewed thousands of projects, the Public Design Commission is the only structural mechanism for social, racial, and environmental equity in the city's capital projects regulatory system,” said Justin Moore, an executive director at the commission from 2016 to 2020.

“Design isn’t a luxury,” he added. “It’s a necessity.”

In addition to stating that projects under $100 million would not be subject to the commission’s approval, the city’s summary of the legislation calls for the commission to have only “staff-level review on significant projects.”

That would mean the commission would not have a vote on such projects.

Although it rarely occurs, the commission has the power to reject or table a project under its review.

Last year, the commission voted down a plan to remove public artwork outside the Manhattan Detention Complex in Chinatown after there were questions of whether the pieces could be recreated or digitally preserved.

The plan, which had a public hearing, was eventually approved, contingent on the city’s agreement to document and recreate the works.

In 2021, the commission made headlines for delaying a decision to relocate a statue of Thomas Jefferson, a known slave owner, that stood in the City Council chambers despite multiple attempts by some lawmakers to remove it for being a symbol of racism.

A month later, the commission decided to place the statue on temporary loan to the New-York Historical Society.

Foley has downplayed the proposed changes. He said the state authority the city is seeking to create would be much more limited in scope than most public authorities. Namely, the Department of Design and Construction is not seeking the power to borrow money for projects. The agency would continue to report to the mayor, and be subject to audits by the City Comptroller as well as oversight hearings by the City Council. Its employees, he added, would also remain unionized under District Council 37.

“This is 100% about procurement reform,” Foley said, referring to the way the city buys services and goods.

Michele Bogart, an art historian who served as vice president on the commission under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, said the creation of authorities are generally viewed as ways of getting around reviews.

She said although the commission rarely vetoes projects, she believed that retaining its design authority over city projects is important.

The commission can be the “court of last resort,” she argued, adding, “It creates a sense of accountability for the public.”