‘Sustainability and Safety; Collaboration and Character’

Although Benjamin Jones joined the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) as its vice president for administrative affairs three years ago, he was only recently confirmed as the agency’s new president. In advance of the Open Community Meeting that the Authority will host on Monday (March 5), Mr. Jones sat down for a question-and-answer session with the Broadsheet. A condensed version of the conversation follows.
Chairman Dennis Mehiel (center) announces the appointment of Benjamin Jones (right) as the Authority’s new president and chief operating officer at a January meeting of the Authority’s board.

Chairman Dennis Mehiel (center) announces the appointment of Benjamin Jones (right) as the Authority’s new president and chief operating officer at a January meeting of the Authority’s board.

Broadsheet: Is this a time of transition for the BPCA?
Mr. Jones: I think the BPCA has had its fair share of transitions, but I’m excited to play a part in this one. Having been at the Authority for a few years and then stepping into this position has, in part, prepared me well. It has helped me get a head start. I’m under no illusion that I don’t still have a lot to learn. I do. But I’ve chiseled away at some of it over my time here and I’m excited about that part. I like the idea very much of moving this organization forward in a responsible way, but I’m also interested to learn more about this organization, and its potential, and the community’s potential.

Broadsheet: What has been the biggest surprise for you about what BPCA does or how it does it?
Mr. Jones: What really struck me almost immediately was the community and parks aspect of this organization. From the outside, for me and a lot of people, there’s a lot of attention to the development and the buildings. But there’s not a lot of attention, I think, sufficiently, to what goes into maintaining the public parks and public spaces. The Authority invests a lot in that from a budget perspective. And you have a lot of enthusiastic people on the ground here who do this for a living, and are great at it, which shows. I see them out there every day, and see the results of their work every day. They are the unsung heros of the BPCA.

Broadsheet: What are your priorities, and which of these do you view challenges, and which as opportunities?
Mr. Jones: There are a number of challenges that I hear from the community about, but it’s within those challenges that there is opportunity. Resiliency is a concern and our place on the water is definitely something we have to continue moving forward on and taking seriously. As we get further from Sandy it can become too easy to forget the importance of being able to protect ourselves. The community often talks about affordability and safety, especially after the terrorist event here in October. How we can respond meaningfully to those concerns is important. And I’ve been trying to emphasize horticulture and maintenance as a way to reassert our leadership in terms of environmental responsibility.

Broadsheet: In the late 1990s, the Authority emerged as a national leader in green building development with a series of new towers. Can it now go back to reprise that history by rehabilitating earlier, less eco-friendly buildings in the community?
Mr. Jones: The BPCA was clearly out front on green building, which has now become the norm. But in many ways, once the development had been done, the BPCA continued to look back. There’s an opportunity to look forward. There are some interesting things, from a sustainability perspective, that can happen with the built environment here.

Broadsheet: Do you want the BPCA to play a similarly pioneering role on resiliency?
Mr. Jones: Broadly, I hope that what we do as a public benefit corporation, if we do it well, it can serve as a model for other communities. Especially on resiliency, because we do have some capacity for financing that other municipalities don’t have, and we can be a little bit more nimble. This puts us in a position to do more, which I think we should. All of us are looking at that through the lens that it’s not only important to the community, but people are going to be watching and I hope that we can figure out some ways to go about resiliency that other people can learn and benefit from.

Broadsheet: The word “resiliency” doesn’t appear in the BPCA’s mission statement or enabling legislation, but the Authority has embraced it as an urgent priority. Because you have flexibility of a hybrid between a government agency and private corporation, you are able to take this on. What other jobs can you see the BPCA taking on in a similar way, simply because they become important?
Mr. Jones: Even if it’s not explicitly mentioned in our mission, when you go to our enabling statute, it talks not just about planning creating and coordinating the community, but sustaining it. When you’re talking about maintaining or sustaining, you can’t not think about resiliency. I envision a neighborhood that it more resilient, and continues to be environmentally responsible, but also one that doesn’t lose the character that has emerged here as a result of the community that has developed over time. That’s important: thinking about how you can keep this neighborhood going — in stronger and more responsible ways — while also keeping the flavor that is unique here.

Broadsheet: What can BPCA do in this regard?
Mr. Jones: I view the character piece in several ways. First, I think about it in terms of the current ground lease, which ends in 2069. Figuring out how to address that in a meaningful way will have benefits that I hope will sustain the character of the neighborhood. It’s complicated. But it’s a reality that we have to deal with responsibly.

Broadsheet: How can you get attention of elected officials, who are dealing with current crises, when you’re worried about a problem 50 years in the future?
Mr. Jones: There are a lot of crises that are hard for elected officials to turn away from, which can make it difficult for them to deal with other issues proactively. But one thing I’ve also seen is that people care about this community. The local elected officials are very invested. That’s true for the governor, as well. And for public servants who are serious about serving, there are problems you have to fix, but there are also opportunities that you can also create.
I’ve developed this conviction that you can’t dismiss the crises, but your existence doesn’t have to be 100 percent about fixing problems. You can find a balance, so that a portion of your day is about fixing problems, and another portion of your day is about how to create opportunities. And if you strike the right balance, you’re making the problems matter less, because the opportunities can help take care of at least some of the problems.

Broadsheet: The simplest scenario for the 2069 problem is to extend the lease, which would benefit multiple constituencies. Would that be the option you look at first?
Mr. Jones: What I’m trying to do now is trying to understand the technicalities of this first. That’s a challenge that I take seriously: to peel back the layers and understand this stuff. Because it is also part of the larger narrative of what Battery Park City is about, and what makes it great.

Broadsheet: What are the dangers that could make Battery Park City not great, or less great?
Mr. Jones: I think of resiliency. I’m mindful of September 11, 2001, and what we can do in partnership with the police department, in terms of safety and security. Going back to character, I care about the vibrancy of this neighborhood. In terms of our responsibility for sustaining, we have a balance of residential and commercial, we have schools and cultural institutions. Making sure that we don’t lose any of those pieces is important.

Broadsheet: What role can BPCA play on affordability?
Mr. Jones: I don’t think our work is done with just one building, such as Gateway. Affordability is a local concern, a City concern, and a State concern. I absolutely think that affordability has to be part of the calculation in the decisions we make. This doesn’t mean that the outcome of every decision is going to be ideal. But, as with other concerns, like sustainability and safety, this is part of the package that informs what we are thinking about as we move forward.

Broadsheet: The Authority has, of late, leaned in the direction of greater dialog and cooperation with the community. Why now?
Mr. Jones: We are public servants, so that’s why it should happen. In good times and bad, public servants should be meeting the community to understand what their concerns are and to see the results of their efforts. We have a responsibility to our bondholders. We have ground lease relationships with developers. But we also have an obligation to the community we’re trying to sustain. So meeting with the community and opening up is the right way to go. Our chairman thinks this is the right way to go. And what we’ve seen recently is why it’s the right way to go. To have a conversation makes it easier to collaborate and come up with constructive ideas. We’re starting to see that, in small ways, like life rings on the Esplanade and a nutrition class for seniors. These may be small, but they add up. I hope that encourages more feedback and input from the community on what we can do. And on our end, I hope that we can deliver when we have the capacity.

Broadsheet: What are the limits to collaboration?
Mr. Jones: We have to be responsible public stewards. So even though I want the Authority to be a part of what makes this community thrive, we can’t write a blank check. We have obligations to the bondholders who helped make it possible to develop and maintain the community. We also have to demonstrate that we are fiscally responsible, so the State and the City allow us to keep doing what we’re doing. But even on fiscal questions, getting input on what the community’s priorities are is a good thing.
But while consultation is important, committees move at a sluggish pace. And sometimes, that’s a worthwhile tradeoff to get the input that you need. As someone who wants to make things happen, however, my goal is progress. Progress that reflects the community’s priorities, our board’s priorities, the Governor’s priorities. So we need to find the right balance, so that we’re getting helpful input, but we’re not paralyzed to the point where our only job is getting input.

Broadsheet: Fifty years from now, aside from community not having been washed out to sea, how do you expect Battery Park City will be different, and how do you hope it will be the same?
Mr. Jones: It needs to be a vibrant community that has figured out new ways to lead on environmental responsibility. But also, the parks programming aspect should still be significant. That’s how we activate our public spaces. Battery Park City and the Authority are not just about the buildings.
It shows incredible foresight that the parks were designed first, as the centerpiece of the community, and that the rest emerged around it. Battery Park City was ahead of its time in that regard. Public space has had a new renaissance with Governors Island and the High Line, but here in Battery Park City is where that started.
As the son of two public school music teachers, I know that the first things to get stripped out of schools are arts and music. I am hoping that by investing more in community partnerships and programming, that we are planting deeper roots in the ground for that, because I don’t want it taken away.

The BPCA’s Open Community Meeting will be held at Six River Terrace (opposite the Irish Hunger Memorial and next to Au Bon Pain), starting at 6:00 pm on Monday, March 5. Residents are invited to ask questions, and hear presentations about new initiatives by the agency that oversees the community.
Matthew Fenton 

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