New York construction spending to exceed $100bn in next three years

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Construction spending in New York City from this year to 2016 is expected to exceed $100bn, according to a report from the New York Building Congress, an advocacy group promoting growth in the construction industry.

The New York City Construction Outlook 2014-2016 estimates that there will be spending of  $33bn in the city this year, up 17% from $28bn in 2013.

Construction spending is expected to increase to $35bn next year and reach $36bn in 2016.

The three-year report forecasts an increase in construction jobs, from 120,900 in 2013 to 127,300 in 2016. If the 2016 jobs total is reached it would be the second highest level of industry employment in at least two decades, behind the 132,600 produced in 2008.

Thomas Scarangello, chairman of the congress and the former president of engineer Thornton Tomasetti, said: “New York City is producing more than 20,000 housing units annually, which is the benchmark that the Building Congress believes is necessary to accommodate household growth, replace antiquated buildings, and maintain adequate housing options for New Yorkers of all income levels.

“What is concerning, however, is that the current level of production is falling far short of the more than 30,000 units that were constructed annually between 2005 and 2008.”

Frank Sciame, chairman of the congress’s Building Foundation arm, said: “Such a wide disparity between spending and production is partially explained by a wave of so-called ultra-luxury condominium towers that are being planned and built in Manhattan.

“Although any and all new housing stock is certainly welcome, the key to the City’s future success will rest in part on our ability to produce a wide range of housing at multiple price points throughout the five boroughs.”



Quantifying the Livable City

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By the time Constantine Kontokosta got involved with New York City’s Hudson Yards development, it was already on track to be historically big and ambitious.

Over the course of the next decade, developers from New York’s Related Companies and Canada-based Oxford Properties Group are building the largest real-estate development in United States history: a 28-acre neighborhood on Manhattan’s far West Side over a Long Island Rail Road yard, with some 17 million square feet of new commercial, residential, and retail space.

Constantine Kontokosta

Hudson Yards is also being planned as an innovative model of efficiency. Its waste management systems, for example, will utilize a vast vacuum-tube system to collect garbage from each building into a central terminal, meaning no loud garbage trucks traversing the streets by night. Onsite power generation will prevent blackouts like those during Hurricane Sandy, and buildings will be connected through a micro-grid that allows them to share power with each other.

Yet it was Kontokosta, the deputy director of academics at New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), who conceived of Hudson Yards as what is now being called the nation’s first “quantified community.” This entails an unprecedentedly wide array of data being collected—not just on energy and water consumption, but real-time greenhouse gas emissions and airborne pollutants, measured with tools like hyper-spectral imagery.

New York has led the way in recent years with its urban data collection. In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed Local Law 84, which requires privately owned buildings over 50,000 square feet in size to provide annual benchmark reports on their energy and water use. Unlike a LEED rating or similar, which declares a building green when it opens, the city benchmarking is a continuous assessment of its operations.

“Buildings and neighborhoods aren’t perfect the minute they’re finished,” explains Charlotte Matthews, vice president of sustainability for the Related Companies. “You really have to operate and tweak and hone and get feedback loops.”

At the then-mayor’s request, Kontokosta authored a 2012 report evaluating that process. He went beyond identifying the primary drivers of New York buildings’ energy efficiency (age, fuel type, location and size of lot, for starters), to find a correlation between neighborhoods with high median building energy use and asthma-related emergency-room visits.

Since then, he and CUSP have continued to explore and compare new data sets, which is why Matthews says Related partnered with them. “He’s very interested in how people connect, and how ideas move and how people move through the city,” she adds.

Many cities have used information technology to improve how cities work, such as demand-responsive pricing for parking in San Francisco or usage-based road taxation in Singapore. But Hudson Yards is unique, Kontokosta says, “in that we’re trying to really measure along multiple dimensions of not just the buildings or the infrastructure, but also how people are interacting with the space, and how the design of the physical space influences activity, public health, and social interaction.” He emphasizes that all disclosure of information for the Hudson Yards quantification project is voluntary.

The development provides an ideal laboratory for CUSP, a new public-private research center, inaugurated by Bloomberg in 2012 and based in Brooklyn, that seeks to pioneer a “science of cities” using large-scale data. Areas of investigation include transportation—are enough taxis serving the city’s outer boroughs?—and urban noise, which has an impact on health, crime, educational outcomes, and real-estate values, as the CUSP website notes.

A visualization of a recent New York City energy-use analysis
(Constantine Kontokosta)

Kontokosta doesn’t just crunch numbers himself. Since CUSP welcomed its first students in 2013, he also teaches a cohort of students to apply data to cities.

“There’s two camps in terms of how people are looking at this data-city connection,” he explains. “One is, ‘We have so much data, let’s just correlate it all, analyze it all, and see what interesting patterns we find and respond to them.’ And others are saying, ‘No, let’s think of the important, interesting questions and then find the data we need and then begin to address those questions.'”

Kontokosta says both ways have merit, but it’s clear which way he leans. “I think so much is really formulated on … the nature of the questions you’re asking.”

While his education is a mix of urban planning (doctorate), real estate finance (master’s degree) and civil engineering (bachelor’s degree), Kontokosta says the core of his work is “thinking about issues of social equity and social justice, and what’s the social impact of some of the things we’re trying to accomplish. That’s been a useful perspective that most people coming up in the engineering fields or the sciences don’t really have a chance to explore.”

The leaders of CUSP hope the center will be truly interdisciplinary—that social scientists will come to them with a question, they will obtain the relevant data, and the two groups of experts can interpret it together. So far, its students bring with them a range of backgrounds, mainly in computer science, engineering, environmental studies, and the social sciences.

“I think my view is certainly not the view of some of the larger technology companies, for instance, who are very focused on the physical, and what data can do on physical infrastructure,” Kontokosta continues. “My focus is much more on understanding how the data influences behavior, and using the type of information that’s now available to really democratize the planning process much more.”

Will this behavior-driven approach to “smart cities” become the norm? The next few years should tell, as CUSP looks to dramatically increase its student intake from dozens to hundreds. “I see this as an incredible opportunity to make information more accessible and transparent to people, which will then give them the ability to make better decisions about what kinds of cities they want to live in,” Kontokosta says.


Mapping the Age of Every Building in Manhattan

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The Harlem Renaissance was the epicenter of new movements in dance, poetry, painting, and literature, and its impact still registers in all those art forms. If you want to trace the Harlem Renaissance, though, best look to Harlem itself.

Many if not most of the buildings in Harlem today rose between 1900 and 1940—and a new mapping tool called Urban Layers reveals exactly where and when. Harlem boasts very few of the oldest buildings in Manhattan today, but it does represent the island’s densest concentration of buildings constructed during the Great Migration.

Thanks to Morphocode‘s Urban Layers, it’s possible to locate nearly every 19th-century building still standing in Manhattan today. That’s just one of the things that you can isolate with the map, which combines two New York City building datasets (PLUTO and Building Footprints) and Mapbox GL JS vector technology to generate an interactive architectural history.

So, looking specifically at Harlem again (with some of the Upper West Side thrown in for good measure), it’s easy to see that very few of the buildings that went up between 1765 to 1860 still stand today.


Toggle the data parameters by a few decades and you see when some pockets of Harlem that still exist start to come into view.


Then construction in Harlem explodes from 1900 to 1940, corresponding with the arrival of migrants from the South. Building slows in subsequent decades before picking up again very recently.


Here’s the more or less complete architectural history of Harlem, represented on one map.


Now, for any Harlem resident, this might seem like the most intuitive discovery in the world. It makes sense that the Harlem Renaissance also made for an uptown building boom, one whose footprint can still be traced there today. The beauty of Urban Layers is that it provides a pretty immediate answer to questions like this one: How old is Harlem?

There are some limitations to Urban Layers, as you might expect: The “year-built” code doesn’t appear to be accurate for every building, as Morphocodeexplains. In the map showing all construction through 2013, the gray tiles represent the properties for which no “year-built” data are available: about 2 percent of the footprints for Manhattan’s 46,000-odd buildings. Seeing when those buildings were constructed at the parcel level with a simple slide of a rule is a real advance in data mapping.

So many questions! Why did it take New York so long to take to build up around Central Park after its completion in 1857? There was an enormous building boom following the consolidation of the cities of New York and Brooklyn in 1898, just after the end of the rule of the Tammany Hall machine. Is the rise of much of modern Manhattan related to the formal consolidation of the five boroughs?

Manhattanites will all start with the same question: How old are the buildings on my block? With Urban Layers, now there’s a map for that.



Get ready for a $5 billion bill, NY

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The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy presented tens of thousands of property owners in the city’s newly expanded flood zone with a difficult decision: stormproof their homes or face insurance premiums that are set to go up by as much as 18% each year.

Two years later, however, homeowners and landlords are discovering the choice is a false one. Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines designed to make coastal beach homes flood-resilient do not take into account New York’s unique mix of row houses and high-rise buildings. And it is now becoming clear just how difficult and costly it would be to retrofit older buildings without drastically altering the look and feel of neighborhoods.

“It’s like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole,” said Laurie Schoeman, resilience program officer at housing nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners’ Manhattan office. “It just doesn’t work.”

To comply with federal guidelines as they stand now might cost more than $5 billion, according to a conservative Crain’s estimate based on case studies and interviews with experts. That’s a steep price for middle-class homeowners, landlords of rent-stabilized properties and the cash-strapped New York City Housing Authority, which owns more than a quarter of the rental units in the flood zone.

Large apartment towers, which represent 61% of the homes in New York’s flood zone, present the greatest departure from most of the 5.5 million properties in FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program. Yet to get the lowest premium, everyone has the same guidelines.

“FEMA has one solution for residential buildings, whether you’re a single-family home or a 100-unit masonry tower: You need to raise your lowest floor and mechanical systems,” said Jessica Yager, policy director at the NYU Furman Center.

At risk are an estimated 87,000 ground-floor apartments that sit in the 100-year floodplain. Landlords would need to get rid of many of them in order to score the lowest premiums.

Two events led to the current situation. Last year, FEMA released new preliminary flood-zone maps, updating them for the first time since 1983 and nearly doubling the number of at-risk buildings to 70,000, representing about 250,000 apartments. A similar increase in the flood-zone area is expected by 2050.

In addition, Congress jacked up insurance premiums in hopes of shrinking the National Flood Insurance Program’s $24 billion debt. The idea was to charge building owners based on the actual risk of flooding and end the heavily subsidized rates that had allowed middle-class homeownership to flourish on waterfronts for decades. In response to an ensuing outcry, lawmakers passed another law delaying those rapid increases, which could be as much as 18% for current policyholders, although owners who are entering the program for the first time may face even steeper costs.

The city and several nonprofits are using that delay to suggest changes to the insurance program, so that New York’s needs are taken into account. So far, they have been unsuccessful in getting any.

“FEMA’s focus has been on protecting single-family homes around the country,” Ms. Schoeman said. “But when Sandy hit New York City, the question became: How to we apply that guidance here?”

Earlier this month, the Department of City Planning provided an answer. To visualize what the retrofits would actually look like under existing regulations, it released a report showing case studies for housing types, including apartment towers.

For those buildings, heating, hot water and other mechanicals would have to be moved out of the basement, and units below the flood elevation would have to be vacated.


Institutional investors who own pricey digs on Manhattan’s Lower East Side or in Chelsea might be able to absorb such costs, which experts peg in the millions. But NYCHA and midsize landlords like Katz Realty Group, which owns property in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, as well as smaller individual owners in Coney Island and the Rockaways, would be less able to afford the capital improvements, leaving them open to premium increases.

The prescribed retrofits could run up against state housing regulations and trigger unintended consequences. More than half of Sandy’s victims were low-income renters, many of them in rent-regulated units below flood elevations now considered unsafe.

“Often in rent-stabilized buildings, for example, you can’t legally get rid of a unit or convert it to storage space,” said Mark Ginsberg of Manhattan-based Curtis+Ginsberg Architects.

If landlords spend enough money improving their buildings, they might pass along that cost to renters and eventually could exit rent stabilization altogether, the Furman Center noted.

On the other hand, if owners of grandfathered buildings spend enough on retrofits, it could trigger yet another FEMA rule that would require them to bring everything up to the current building and fire codes—leaving owners with an incentive to do nothing.

Losing apartments

For attached homes and row houses, an added question of character comes into play. Physically lifting those buildings is unrealistic. Instead, property owners would have to vacate inhabited floors below the flood elevation. Often that means using the bottom floors for storage or garage space, taking away ground-floor rental apartments that help homeowners pay their mortgages, though new zoning rules would allow some owners to replace that lost square footage on top of their homes.

“Not going to happen,” said Chris Alvarez, a New York City schoolteacher who lives along a street of attached homes in Coney Island’s flood zone.

It would seem like homeowners in the Harding Park section of the Bronx, a sleepy community of bungalows and semidetached buildings on a peninsula off the East River, would have the easiest time adhering to FEMA’s suggestions for lowering premiums. After all, houses there most closely resemble the types of buildings the agency is used to dealing with.

But Elbin Mena, president of the Harding Park Environmental Center, said much of the neighborhood had to be grandfathered into the building and zoning codes. The lots are so narrow that there would be nowhere to stage construction equipment. Many of the bungalows sit on foundations made out of scrap wood, according to Mr. Mena, and are insulated with newspaper.

“Raising these homes would be physically impossible,” he said.

It would also be costly. The nonprofit Center for NYC Neighborhoods estimates that raising a single-family home would generally cost between $80,000 and $100,000. Harding Park’s median household income is $37,000, according to the U.S. Census.

Homeowner Miguel Rodriguez said he can’t afford retrofits or insurance, which could rise to about $10,000 from $1,000 for an average home, according to the center. And because he doesn’t have a mortgage, he doesn’t have to do either. He’s simply hoping for the best when the next storm hits.

All or nothing

In May, the mayor’s office contracted two studies to look at how changes to the National Flood Insurance Program would affect the affordability of coastal neighborhoods. The results aren’t due for months, but many advocates believe the situation is dire.

“If we don’t do anything, these neighborhoods are going to change dramatically and become very hard places for working- and middle-class New Yorkers to live,” said Matthew Hassett, director of policy and communications for the center.

The city and a handful of nonprofits have suggested other ways FEMA could tailor the program to urban communities. For instance, the owners of commercial and mixed-use buildings with ground-floor retail can currently score lower premiums by erecting flood barriers, rather than simply abandoning the first floor. FEMA is being asked to give large multifamily buildings the same flexibility.

Housing experts have also suggested FEMA take into account partial mitigation measures such as raising mechanicals instead of an entire home, which lower risk but do not significantly lower premiums, and are not allowed when a home has to be substantially improved.

There are signs the agency is taking heed.

Congress has required it to explore the viability of partial mitigation, and, according to several sources, FEMA has hired a consultant to do so. But many are wondering whether any potential changes will come before 2017, when the flood-insurance program is up for renewal, or a year later, when premium increases will ratchet up to full throttle.

“Unfortunately, we are probably going to need all of that time to figure it out,” said Bomee Jung, deputy director of Enterprise Community Partners’ Manhattan office. “And that makes this an urgent problem.”

A version of this article appears in the October 20, 2014, print issue of Crain’s New York Business.


Manhattan Apartments With Illegal Greenhouses

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In most places, greenhouses are structures used to grow plants. In New York City, they’re used to grow apartments.

From around the late ’60s through the early ’90s, many apartment dwellers fortunate enough to have a balcony or terrace put it under glass to make their patch of outdoor space habitable all year long.

They called the enclosed area a “temporary structure” (though dismantling it really wasn’t part of the plan) to exploit a building code loophole, closed several years ago, that didn’t count such an addition when calculating floor area ratio, a figure that helps determine how big a building can be. And code enforcement is about to get more rigorous.

The label “greenhouse” was as misleading as the label “temporary structure.”

“People may have put their pot plants there or a potted plant there, but the point was really to create more indoor space,” said Howard L. Zimmerman, an architect who specializes in exterior facade restoration. He estimates that there are thousands of these greenhouses or, as the Department of Buildingscalls them, sunrooms, in New York City.

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“For years, architects were putting these glass enclosures on setbacks, knocking down walls to incorporate them into the existing unit and really abusing the building codes,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

The structures needed to be waterproofed and installed properly, registered with the buildings department and issued permits as permanent structures. Few were. As supposed temporary structures they were not supposed to have heating or cooling systems. Many did.

These lapses have long been easy to overlook because of a greenhouse’s undeniable wow factor, especially in the case of an ornate high-end model with curved metal and glass and a $500,000 price tag. The low end: $10,000.

Apartments with glass enclosures command a premium of $25,000 to $50,000, according to Gina Kuhlenkamp, an associate broker with Coldwell Banker Bellmarc, who has sold several apartments with greenhouses atTurtle Bay Towers where, atypically, they were part of the developer’s original design and in full compliance with all the appropriate city departments.

“Greenhouses can be gorgeous and sexy and a great addition to an apartment,” said Ronni Arougheti Hart, a managing director of Terra Holdings, the parent company of Halstead Property. “A balcony or terrace is something you can only use a couple of months a year. But when it’s enclosed it can be a den or a bedroom. You have additional square footage that’s weatherproof, and an outside feel without the soot and the noise.

“But,” Ms. Hart continued, “if something goes wrong, it can open a Pandora’s box.”

The concern about something going wrong may explain a new rule by the buildings department that will be incorporated into facade inspections starting in 2015: An additional heated or cooled space made by a permanent balcony or terrace enclosure will be considered noncompliant if it doesn’t have a permit. “Under certain circumstances the structure would be required to be dismantled,” said Alexander Schnell, a spokesman for the buildings department.

Some might say that the rule is late in coming. Many greenhouses in the city, often installed without a permit or under the guise of “temporary structure,” are showing their age; some are leaking water into neighboring apartments, causing many headaches and many dollars in damage. Now come the disputes about who’s to blame and who’s to pay.

“Sometimes the greenhouses were put up with co-op board approval and sometimes without board approval, and sometimes no one can tell if there was or wasn’t approval, because many years have elapsed and the person who put in the greenhouse was several sellers ago,” said Steven D. Sladkus, a real estate lawyer at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz.

The real problem, of course, is when a shareholder doesn’t know a greenhouse wasn’t approved, doesn’t know a greenhouse wasn’t constructed or installed properly, and suddenly the neighboring units are under water. Mr. Sladkus represents an Upper West Side building that has just such a situation. “The shareholder didn’t install the greenhouse and now she’s saying, ‘Co-op, it’s your problem.’ ” Mr. Sladkus said. “And the co-op is saying, ‘No, it’s your problem.’ ”

A co-op board on Sutton Place is battling two shareholders who built greenhouses on the building’s parapet walls. “The city’s buildings department has found them to be illegal in both structure and material, and we’ve been issued a violation,” said Stan Bell, the president of the co-op board, adding that the greenhouses have caused leaks and damage to the bricks. “We’ve attempted to negotiate, but the shareholders don’t want to take them down,” he said. “If we have to go to litigation, it will take several years and it will be very expensive. I’m concerned that it will affect sales in the building.”

Mr. Zimmerman recently consulted with a co-op where, years ago, a shareholder bought a penthouse apartment with a rooftop greenhouse from a well-known playwright. He wrote one of his works in that very greenhouse, he told the starstruck buyer.

“It’s a debate whether the structure is legal,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “We haven’t been able to find any filings.”

Now, the greenhouse is obstructing access to an area of the building that needs attention. The shareholder, he said, has agreed to pay for the additional cost of working over and around the enclosure.

Paying for expensive repairs may be just the beginning for shareholders who are deemed liable. Mr. Zimmerman said: “Those greenhouses that they paid a premium for when they bought their apartments, in some instances, co-op boards are telling them, ‘This was never filed with the buildings department. This is an illegal structure. Not only are we going to make you take it down, but you’re not going to put it back up because the D.O.B. isn’t going to grandfather something that wasn’t legal to begin with.’ ”

There is considerable potential for adding to the bad feelings between boards and greenhouse-owning shareholders. “If a co-op has central heating and air-conditioning and it’s included in the maintenance, now you have the additional greenhouse space that is drawing on the building’s resources,” said Ms. Hart of Terra Holdings. “Every other unit owner is subsidizing it.”

Should a co-op issue more shares? Should greenhouse owners pay more maintenance because they’ve increased the footprint of their apartment?

Then there’s the issue of floor area ratio. “If a building is allowed 10,000 square feet of buildable square footage, and you build 9,000 square feet of brick and mortar and 1,000 feet of greenhouses, that’s fine,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “The building is within its zoning envelope.”

But the building could have had its own plans for the extra space. “Those greenhouses could keep a board from building a facility like a gym that all the residents could enjoy,” Mr. Sladkus said.

Many co-ops are paying the price for an earlier anything-goes mindset. “In the ’70s co-op boards weren’t as sophisticated or vigilant as they are today,” Ms. Hart said.

“Now, when someone comes to them asking about installing a greenhouse, they know immediately to say no.”


Building codes and pollution control

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Raising energy efficiency is the easiest way for the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and improve its air quality

The whole world is looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve energy. The most powerful strategy is to find solutions that handle both problems at once. For example, if new buildings are built with modern, energy-efficient technologies, they will drastically cut energy waste, and thus carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas. At the same time, they will cut their demand for electricity, cooling, and heat, which will minimize the use of power plants and heating boilers.

I mention buildings because world-class building codes, properly enforced over time, can cut their energy consumption by up to 80 percent. We know this because California has now achieved it in new buildings compared to those constructed before the present code was introduced. New York City’s mayor has calculated that three-fourths of his city’s energy is consumed in buildings, so he is launching a new initiative to make them more efficient. China, too, can ensure its new buildings are efficient and built to last.

Energy efficiency has much more potential than most people realize. The pattern holds in industry, transportation, and other areas. Slash energy waste and you reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

What are the implications for China? It means that, in drafting the next five-year plan, there are terrific opportunities to win both the air quality and pollution battles, and help combat climate change. International experience suggests that carefully designed standards and pollution control strategies, if properly enforced, can make an enormous difference to air pollution and help with climate change.

China has some excellent experience on this front. China’s energy efficiency standards for refrigerators, for example, will save around a billion tons of carbon pollution, even as they cut air pollution – sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides – by millions of tons each. Fuel use in cars can be cut by 40 percent because of fuel efficiency standards.


New York Times’ “Living City” explores NYC’s water supply

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Up here in the Catskills, in the heart of New York City’s vast rural watershed, it’s impossible to forget that one lives in the middle of the city’s water supply. The city’s huge reservoirs dominate the landscape. Watershed affairs dominate local politics. New York City’s watershed police patrol along sleepy back roads a hundred miles from Manhattan.

For most downstate New Yorkers, though, water is just a thing that comes out of the tap. This week, the New York Times introduced its readers to their astonishing water system in “Living City,” a video series that explores some of the wonders of urban engineering that make life in our nation’s largest city possible.

The video (embedded above) features New York historian Gerard Koeppel, New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) deputy commissioner Paul Rush along with a few other DEP staffers, and local sport shop owner Lloyd Hornbeck.

For Hornbeck, like many who live in the watershed, the beauty of the city’s reservoirs is bittersweet. A lifelong local resident, Hornbeck remembers the town of Cannonsville, seized and destroyed to build the Cannonsville Reservoir, which was put into service in 1964.

“God, I’d like the old days back, but let’s face it — we’ve got what we’ve got, and we’ve got to enjoy what it is now,” Hornbeck tells the camera from his seat in a rowboat on the Cannonsville. “I mean, you look at it, you’d never know there was a town under here.”

In the video, Koeppel, the author of “Water For Gotham: A History,” reminds New Yorkers not to take what they have for granted:

“I think it’s important for all New Yorkers to be aware of their water system, to not take for granted the water that comes out of your tap seemingly so effortlessly,” Koeppel says. “Many generations of work have gone into creating this incredible water supply, which is the gold standard for urban water supplies, copied by other cities around the world.”


Study Suggests a Rebound for Union Jobs in New York

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Just two years ago, labor leaders were fretting over the steady erosion of New York City’s reputation as a bastion of unionization. The share of working-age city residents belonging to labor unions was in what they feared was an inexorable decline.

But an annual study scheduled to be released this week suggests that unions may be fighting that trend — if only in New York. The study, conducted by two professors at the City University of New York Graduate Center, found that the proportion of working-age New York City residents who were members of unions had rebounded in the last 18 months to nearly one in four.

“We were surprised, too,” said Ruth Milkman, referring to herself and the co-author of the study, Stephanie Luce. Though the bounce back has been “modest,” they had not foreseen it; two years ago, Professor Milkman was discussing the slide in union membership rates in the present tense and with a tone of inevitability.

On the eve of Labor Day this year, however, she said the share of city residents who identified themselves as union members, a proportion that had fallen to slightly more than one in five, had risen since the start of 2013. The primary cause of the reversal appeared to be a surge in hiring in construction and the hotel industry, not the well-publicized campaigns for higher pay and better benefits by fast-food workers and others earning low wages.

“We don’t see any evidence of that — the fast-food thing,” Professor Milkman said. “While that’s a very visible campaign, they have yet to organize.”

Rather than a result of efforts to organize employees of restaurants and retail chains, Professor Milkman said, the “pretty healthy uptick” in union membership among New Yorkers appears to be a function of rising employment in industries with traditions of strong unions, such as construction. In an interview, she cited surveys by the federal government that pointed to significant increases in iron workers, plumbers, pipe fitters and other building trades that are highly unionized in New York.

Despite reports of a growing number of construction projects in the city opting for less costly, nonunion labor, Professor Milkman said the number of union jobs was probably growing at the same time.

“The same thing is happening in the hotel industry,” she said. “There are more nonunion hotels, too, but employment in the hotel industry is growing even faster.” She said it was “too soon to know” if the turnaround would continue or subside. But she added, “There was a long-term decline in the private-sector union density, and now it seems to have reversed.”

Ed Ott, a former director of the New York City Central Labor Council, an umbrella organization of unions with over one million members, said he was not prepared to call the turnaround a trend. But Mr. Ott added, “If it is a trend, it’s definitely a positive sign.” He said that in part, it reflected an effort by building trades’ unions “to win back market share” from nonunion workers.

New York City and the rest of the state already stood out for their high unionization rates. About 24 percent of city residents and 25 percent of state residents are union members, more than double the 11 percent rate for the country as a whole, according to the study, titled “The State of the Unions 2014.”


In Sandy turnaround test, NYC says it’ll meet goal

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NEW YORK (AP) — A city home-repair program has been sprinting to meet a self-imposed deadline to signal a turnaround in Superstorm Sandy recovery, and officials say they’re positioned to pass their test of rebuilding both houses and confidence.

The milestone for the Build It Back initiative — 500 construction projects started and 500 reimbursement checks sent by Labor Day — represents a fraction of the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 homes eligible for fixing or reimbursements, and concerns about the program’s pace linger among some New Yorkers still dealing with damage. But Mayor Bill de Blasio has portrayed the benchmarks as jump-starting a stalled program that hadn’t fixed a single house or dispatched any checks when he took office in January.

In this Aug. 27, 2014 photo provided by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, carpenters work on a home in the Breezy

In this Aug. 27, 2014 photo provided by the New York City Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, carpenters work on a home in the Breezy Point section of the Queens borough of New York that was damaged in Superstorm Sandy. New York City officials say they are on target to meet the Build it Back program?s initial goal of starting 500 construction projects and sending 500 reimbursement checks by Labor Day. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio portrays the goals as jumpstarting the program, which hadn?t fixed a single house or dispatched any checks when he took office in January 2014. (AP Photo/New York City Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations) (AP)

“I think it’s working, and we’re going to keep making it work better,” he said this week.

The city readily surpassed its goal for checks. But the construction component, which sends city-paid contractors to do needed work, has been more challenging: It counted 411 construction starts as of Tuesday, the most recent figures available. Officials have said many other projects were on the verge of starting, and they said Friday they were confident they would hit 500.

Two summers after Sandy’s floods, the toll is still visible at Teresa Surillo’s home in the Rockaways. The retired nursing home kitchen worker and her husband did what repairs they could afford with their slim resources and $46,000 in insurance money, but half their ground-floor walls are still torn out, she said.

They applied to Build It Back early on, navigating repeated requests for more information and long stretches of silence. Momentum picked up after de Blasio rebooted the program this spring, and the Surillos now may have their home completely rebuilt above flood level, an option that requires additional reviews. They said they’ve waited about a month to hear when they can meet program staffers to evaluate their choices and decide.

“We just hope something can be done,” Teresa Surillo said, but “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg created Build It Back in June 2013, after a program called Rapid Repairs did basic work to make homes habitable. But as of Jan. 1, no households had complete plans for the work, and the program had developed a red-tape reputation.

De Blasio announced the 500-homes goals in April. He eliminated income categories that had held up some applications because others were prioritized, assigned city Buildings Department inspectors exclusively to the initiative and made other changes that accelerated it.

After getting only a few thousand dollars in insurance payouts to fix her flooded Staten Island house, Donna Panebianco applied to Build It Back last year, but “nothing really went on until they revamped the program,” she said.

“Once they did, I took off running,” the bookkeeper said this past week, with work underway on her ground-floor bathroom and other problems.

While Monday’s benchmark may be modest compared to the overall need, “it’s a huge number compared to zero,” city housing recovery chief Amy Peterson said. She notes that more than 10,300 homes have been inspected, quadruple the number last year. And more than 1,000 residents have decided on a plan and completed design consultations.

While giving the administration credit for setting a responsive, reinvigorated tone, local officials greet it with tempered optimism. “There has been a major improvement,” but there also are thousands of homeowners still waiting for results, said City Councilman Mark Treyger, who leads the council’s Sandy recovery committee.

Enduring frustrations with red tape and timeframes have bubbled up at some community meetings this summer; 1,000 people packed one organized by community advocacy group Faith in New York. And Republican Rep. Michael Grimm complained this week that Build It Back remains “completely broken,” speaking outside a boarded-up, mold-filled Staten Island house. Officials say they and the homeowner have made strides recently to advance the project.

A mile away, Roy Garlisi welcomed a Build It Back contractor this past week to take measurements for repairs to his basement, with a hitch: The program’s rules won’t allow for fixing the kitchen, as there’s another one upstairs, though it lacks an oven. “We’ve been eating out of a frying pan since Sandy,” said Garlisi, 81.


But he’s glad for other work the program will do.

“I’m very hopeful,” he said. “It’s moving in the right direction now.”