The Price of Resiliency

At an October 2 Open Community Meeting, officials from the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) discussed for the first time the overall budget for the resiliency plan they are formulating for the community.

Authority president B.J. Jones said, in response to a question, “the overall resiliency cost for all four phases is about two-thirds of our overall five-year capital plan request,” referring to an upcoming issue of new bond debt that the BPCA is currently planning. “And the comes out to about $300 million.”

The figure of $300 million indicates that the BPCA’s resiliency effort will cost vastly less than the nearest, similar effort: the East Side Costal Resiliency Project, a plan to create flood barriers along the East River, between Montgomery and East 25th Streets. Originally budgeted at $760 million, that project’s estimated price tag recently jumped to $1.45 billion.

BPCA president B.J. Jones: “The overall resiliency cost for all four phases is about two-thirds of our overall five-year capital plan request. And the comes out to about $300 million.”
Closer to home, BPCA officials were asked at the October 2 meeting whether the ongoing West Thames pedestrian bridge project, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, augured similar travails for the much larger and vastly more complicated plan to made the community safe against the effects of climate change and future extreme-weather events. Mr. Jones responded, “we are at the initial stages, and the final design and engineering of many of these projects is not complete. That is what true cost estimates will have to be based on. But through our infrastructure study and initial conversations with our vendors, we have been trying to build up as good an estimate as possible, and a conservative one, at that. So that is our best estimate at this time.” (It may be worth noting, in this context, that the BPCA has played almost no role in the design or construction of the West Thames bridge, apart from helping to fund it.)

Gwen Dawson, the BPCA’s vice president for real property, added, “we are continuing to do work on our estimation to be sure we are as accurate as we can be at this stage, which is not very far along.” She continued, “part of what we have to do going forward is to find out what’s under the ground,” in a reference to preliminary surveys to determine the composition and the state of repair for the landfill on which Battery Park City is constructed, along with related assessments of how far water penetrates beneath these surfaces. “What we’ll have to do to accommodate that will dictate a great deal of the expenditures,” she noted.

“We build in a health contingency to our cost estimates to try to account for that,” she observed. “It’s not a perfect system, but we that the means that we try to accommodate the unexpected.”

BPCA chairman George Tsunis: “If we have to be in a construction trailer at 7:30 every morning to make sure that, in all reasonableness, we come in on time and on budget, that’s what we’ll do. This is a very, very competent crew. I’m pretty confident that you’ll be pleased with the result. We’re going to own it.”

 

The BPCA’s new chairman, George Tsunis, reflected that, “I understand the concern, but I have no expectations that’s going to happen, I promise you.” He also echoed Ms. Dawson’s caveat: “we can’t account for what is underground yet. That’s an unknown.”

“This is not a bureaucracy,” he continued. “I don’t know who handled [the West Thames bridge] project, but this isn’t the City of New York. We’re actually a very, very small authority. I sit on the boards of four public benefit corporations, and I will tell you that the group of people who manage this are professionals. They are highly competent.”

“There are also a couple of people on this board who build things for a living, and I’m one of them,” he continued. This was a reference to the fact that Mr. Tsunis has decades of experience building hotels, while fellow BPCA board members Donald Cappocia and Lester Petracca have also made careers of residential and commercial development.

“We’re not going to allow it to happen,” Mr. Tsunis added, in a reference to the concern that the BPCA’s resiliency project might experience similar cost increases. “If we have to be in a construction trailer at 7:30 every morning to make sure that, in all reasonableness, we come in on time and on budget, that’s what we’ll do. This is a very, very competent crew. I’m pretty confident that you’ll be pleased with the result.”

“And if not,” he predicted, “you’ll come see all of us. We’re going to own it.”

Battery Park City resident Ann Schwalbenberg asked, “are we expecting that all of the funding for all of the resiliency activities in Battery Park City will be paid for by us? That there is no external funding that you anticipate will be coming in from any other source?” This was a reference the fact that the East Side Costal Resiliency Project has been funded partially by the federal government (which contributed more than $300 million), with the balance coming from the City and the State.

Democracy for Battery Park City co-founder Justine Cuccia: “Whatever you do with bonding for resiliency impacts your choices for ground rent. And whatever you do with ground rent impacts your choices for resiliency. So I think they really need to be done in a cohesive way.”

Mr. Jones replied, “not that we wouldn’t welcome outside funding, but we don’t anticipate any at this moment. The additional cost that would come from supporting this resiliency effort would be taken out of the excess revenues that go over to the City.” This was a reference to the fact that the BPCA generates more than $100 million in surplus funds each year, derived primarily from ground rent (fees paid by building owners, in exchange for occupying the land) and PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes). These funds are usually remitted to the City.

“So there’s not going to be an increase in PILOT or ground rents to accommodate it,” Mr. Jones continued. “But right now there isn’t any other funding stream on the horizon.” The lack of any City, State, or federal funding appears to make Battery Park City unique, in that it may thus be the only community in the region (and perhaps the nation) that bears the cost of a local resiliency program entirely on its own

This issue was probed further by Justine Cuccia, a co-founder of Democracy for Battery Park City, a grassroots organization that seeks to preserve affordability in Battery Park City by advocating for rollbacks in fees paid to the BPCA. “As reassured as I am to hear you say that you’re not going to raise the PILOT or the ground rents to pay for this,” she began, “the reality is that the way it’s structured right now, with the contracts that are in place, Battery Park City is not affordable for the people who live there. So that alone is not enough.”

Mr. Jones responded, “it’s not just resiliency that’s important to us. Affordable housing is important to us. I think you draw an interesting connection between both of them. We’re at the beginning of projects to deal with ground rents and the lease term and we actively engaged on that front.”

Ms. Cuccia continued, “these are not mutually exclusive. Whatever you do with bonding for resiliency impacts your choices for ground rent. And whatever you do with ground rent impacts your choices for resiliency. So I think they really need to be done in a cohesive way.”

(Ms. Cuccia is related to this story’s author)

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