In his Tuesday press conference, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state will expedite infrastructure projects as a focus of its plan for economic recovery. He specifically mentioned the new Penn Station and LaGuardia projects, saying that not only does the state need to create jobs, with commuter and air passenger volume down, this is the perfect time to take on those projects with limited disruption.
Nonessential construction and manufacturing can resume today in the Mid-Hudson region of New York as Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Sullivan and Ulster counties enter Phase I of reopening after the ordered shutdown to attempt to contain the novel coronavirus.
In Phase I, nonessential construction and manufacturing can resume along with wholesale businesses, retail for curbside or in-store pickup and agriculture, forestry and fishing. All businesses are required to follow new public health guidelines and have safeguards in place. Social distancing must be adhered to where possible and masks worn, as well as following more stringent cleaning and hygiene protocols.
Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties will enter Phase I tomorrow.
Officials will be watching the number of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths closely. If the numbers stay on track and any outbreak is contained through contact tracing and isolation, the regions could enter Phase II in about two weeks. Testing facilities are now open across the mid-Hudson region and Long Island.
The PAUSE order limiting which construction sites and businesses can be open remains in effect in New York City where the needed metrics for reopening have not yet been met. There is no estimated date for the five boroughs to enter Phase I but the mayor has said he hopes it can happen early- to mid-June.
As governors begin the slow, phased process of easing stay-at-home restrictions and allowing businesses to open, the construction projects that are currently operating in New York City provide a preview of the what sites will look like in New York and surrounding states in the near future.
At jobs where developers and contractors are adjusting quickly and attempting to meet new guidelines, workers are wearing masks, even on breaks, and adhering to social distancing rules of six feet between people throughout the day. There are more handwashing stations and tools are being disinfected and not shared among workers. When deliveries arrive, the driver is not getting out of the vehicle.
In some places, employees’ temperatures are checked when they arrive at the site, and construction workers are being told to stay home if they aren’t feeling well.
City inspectors are expected to stop at sites frequently to confirm contractors are sticking to the rules.
There is even the possibility of a drastic change in work hours. According to the New York Times, “Representatives of labor groups and contractor companies are pushing the city to permit 24-hour construction at some locations to reduce the number of laborers on site at any one time.”
Over the weekend, governor Andrew Cuomo said that construction and manufacturing jobs that could follow the health guidelines would be among the first sectors of business to start up again in Phase I of the re-opening plan as New York–as well as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Connecticut–try to get people back to work in hopes that the worst of the pandemic is over for the area. For New York, it will begin upstate after May 15. The governor said he will extend the PAUSE order beyond May 15 for New York City and the surrounding area as he waits for the novel coronavirus numbers to decline there.
On Sunday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state’s general reopening plan, which will have a regional phased approach. After May 15, Phase One would begin in lesser hit areas and include construction.
“Phase one of reopening will involve construction and manufacturing activities, and within construction and manufacturing, those businesses that have a low risk,” said Cuomo Sunday.
It will start upstate. The hard-hit downstate areas, including New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County are likely to have an extension of the PAUSE guidelines beyond the May 15 expiration of the current order.
When projects restart, workers will have to abide by public health guidelines. Industry leaders are working with the state and individual businesses will be tasked with creating a plan to get back to work while keeping the novel coronavirus infections at bay.
There will be 14 days between phases with the state monitoring health numbers and looking for flare-ups before moving to the next step.
Phase two will open certain industries based on priority and risk level. Businesses considered “more essential” with inherent low risks of infection in the workplace and to customers will be prioritized, followed by other businesses considered “less essential” or those that present a higher risk of infection spread. As the infection rate declines, the pace of reopening businesses will be increased.
Gary LaBarbera, the president of Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, released a statement, agreeing with Cuomo’s decision to put construction first.
“It makes perfect sense for the construction industry to be at the front end of the remobilization of the work force,” Labarbera said in a statement.
In their daily coronavirus press conferences on Thursday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey governor Phil Murphy extended their stay-at-home orders in each state until May 15. Murphy made the announcement, specifically discussing the closure of NJ’s public schools, but said he remains hopeful that with public health guidelines in place longer he can make a “different” announcement in a month.
Murphy mentioned construction when asked about the Turnpike Authority’s planned April 28 meeting, which would address possible toll hikes, and if he is allowing that meeting to go forward as planned. He said it could, but only if it was done in a virtual setting and allowed a longer period for public comment. Figuring out the budget is the key to continuing vital infrastructure projects.
“Transportation money needs to be the main source of transportation projects,” he said and noted that the state must continue to provide
“Construction as a general matter for rest areas [and] big highway projects, that’s going on because NJ goes on,” he said.
Cuomo discussed the strategy for reopening New York, which will actually be the strategy used by seven Northeast states–NY, NJ, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island–in an alliance of I-95 corridor states created this week. (The plan will be created by a group consisting of a head public health official, a chief economic development officer, and the governor’s chief of staff from each state.)
Cuomo tweeted the guidelines for the plan, reiterating what he has said in the past–this will not be a reset to the way things were before the shutdown, but the beginning of a new way of doing business until a viable treatment or widespread public vaccine is established.
“Employers will need to develop new practices around workplace social distancing rules, transportation, customer interactions, and more,” he tweeted. “We need proactive protocols in the event of an infection at a workplace.”
The return to business will be phased in on a “priority scale,” he said.
“Business will reopen based on the risk posed,” he tweeted. “We will work on a regional basis.”
In the last two weeks, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) released two reports, which combine to show a mixed picture of construction industry employment and spending.
Last week, AGC released an analysis of federal employment data from October 2018 to October 2019 that showed construction employment increased in 65 percent of U.S. metro areas. Despite the overall positive numbers nationwide, the Northeast took a hit. New York City had the largest number of job losses over that time period, losing 6,200, or four percent, of its construction jobs, according to the report. (Fairbanks, AK, had the biggest decrease by percentage, dropping 13 percent which was a loss of 400 jobs.)
The report also showed hourly craftworker positions remain difficult to fill despite the overall job gains. In response to that, the AGC officials “urged the Trump administration and Congress to make it easier to bring in workers for specific jobs that cannot be filled domestically and to strengthen career and technical education opportunities for students seeking alternatives to college.”
A second analysis released this week showed construction spending declined .8 percent in October from September. The $1.291 trillion spent in October 2019 remained better than spending in October 2018 by 1.1 percent but, this year, decreases in private nonresidential, multifamily and public projects were too much to override an increase in construction of single-family homes, according to AGC’s analysis of federal spending data. The association blamed trade conflicts for the negative impact.
“Trade friction drags down U.S. economic growth,” AGC’s chief economist Ken Simonson said in a statement, adding, “Businesses that have been hurt by existing tariffs and retaliatory actions by U.S. trading partners or firms facing uncertainty over future trade policy are likely to hold off on construction projects.”
After approval by the city council on May 29, 2019, an amendment that stands to noticeably affect the New York City skyline, has been ratified. It comes in the form of an attempt to close a unique loophole in zoning laws that creates taller residential buildings with far less available living space. The Residential Tower Mechanical Voids Text Amendment imposes new regulations on the use of excessive mechanical voids in building construction.
What, Exactly, Are Mechanical Voids, and What Is the Problem?
Before this amendment, mechanical voids of any kind did not count in the square footage of usable space in a zoning permit. The reason for this is that these voids usually make up floors for storing mechanical equipment for the building and mechanical bulkheads in the tops of some high-rise structures. In a residential space, these entire floors are not habitable and therefore do not count toward the square footage, hence the name “void.” The projected height of a building generally should not be largely different from the finished product.
This is where the issue of excessive mechanical voids comes into play and what the amendment hopes to do away with in future projects, involving not only the size of singular voids but also how multiple close voids can be in relation to each other. The amendment seeks to address issues such as:
- Too-tall buildings. With uninhabitable spaces in a high-rise building reaching and exceeding the equivalent of multiple habitable floors, the final structure is far higher than zoning would have otherwise allowed. This poses environmental changes to other parts of the city, such as longer shadows cast on parts of Central Park, as suggested by activists supporting stronger regulations.
- Inflated cost of living. These taller buildings in highly demanded corners of the city use these voids to reduce the amount of livable space on lower floors, meaning the available residences are higher up and ultimately cost more. As the discussion around affordable housing in the city of New York continues to rage, the closing of this loophole has become a necessary part of the discussion.
Is The New Legislation Enough? What Are Critics Saying?
While some hail this decision as an essential first step, others say the amendment is not enough. In some cases, this has already led to some slight alterations. For instance, the City of New York website notes that criticism did lead to some changes before the amendment’s final passage. Initially, the minimum allowable height of a mechanical void that would not be counted among usable space in zoning was 25 feet in height, raised to 30 feet to allow a more reasonable amount of space for mechanical equipment. By and large, criticisms come from both sides of the debate:
- Not strict enough, say some critics. Gale Brewer, President of the Manhattan Borough, believes the required distance between voids (before they are counted as zoned space) should be increased from 75 feet to 90 feet. City Councilman Ben Kallos suggested that the allowable size of unzoned space for individual voids should cap at 14 feet rather than 30 feet.
- Space is needed for growing energy trends. At a time when New York has committed itself to increasing energy efficiency and reducing its carbon footprint, lobbying groups like the Real Estate Board of New York insist that these limitations further limit developers’ ability to incorporate evolving technologies for lowering energy costs. Mechanical equipment, including ventilation systems and batteries, require space. The latter, especially, are growing larger all the time.
As the debate continues and further restrictions are proposed at the state and local level, the discussion will only continue to evolve just as the city skyline does. For now, whether it reaches unforeseen heights or becomes more down-to-earth discourse remains to be seen.
This week New York Senator Chuck Schumer said he will propose legislation to push construction to start on the multi-billion dollar Gateway Tunnel and Portal Bridge Project. Speaking at an event of the Association for a Better New York, Schumer said his bill would allow New York and New Jersey to advance money to get shovel-ready construction projects started and be guaranteed reimbursement from the federal government when the U.S. Department of Transportation gives its final approval.
Schumer said “if DOT continues to withhold the new starts grants from Portal and the ROD [record of decision] for the Hudson tunnels” he and fellow members of Congress from New York and New Jersey would push this legislation and attach it to an appropriations bill or some other “must-pass legislation,” according to The Bond Buyer.
Right now, Schumer said, even if the states had the money to fund the projects ready to begin the $12.7 billion plan to upgrade the rail tunnel under the Hudson River, the local government won’t spend that money for fear of not getting back what they would be owed from the federal government.
Acknowledging that this legislation is not the “magic solution” to solving the problems plaguing the Gateway Project overnight, Schumer said “the time for waiting is over.”
The numbers are out, and it’s no surprise—it is expensive to build in New York City. As a matter of fact, New York City has the highest construction costs in the country. And they just keep going up.
The New York Building Congress released its New York City Construction Costs 2019 Construction Outlook Update this week. Last year, the cost of construction in New York City rose 5 percent, compared to a 3 to 4 percent increase nationally. That is about the same increase as the year before and, overall, NYC remains the country’s most expensive major city to build in. The primary driving factors in construction expenses were the cost of land, materials and regulations, according to the report.
The top ranking is created by Class A office and retail building costs, which were significantly higher than any other sector. New York is actually behind Chicago in hotel construction costs, less expensive than Los Angeles for K-12 education, and ranked lower than Chicago and San Francisco for multi-family residential construction.
Despite the overall numbers, it’s worth it to work in New York City, according to Carlo A. Scissura, president and CEO of New York Building Congress.
“While the cost of construction is high, the rewards for doing business in New York have never been greater.”