For decades, dozens of New York’s Finest would cram themselves each day into the 122nd Precinct House, a squat concrete box on Staten Island’s Hylan Blvd.
With a blank exterior, few windows and low ceilings, it’s the kind of place neither the public nor the public servants wanted to spend much time in — the kind of cheap, bland government architecture that dominates too many cities.
But all that changed for the men and women in blue last month, when the city created a new precinct — the 121st — the first in 50 years.
The Rafael Viñoly-designed metallic rectangle juts out of a hillside overlooking a small cemetery on Richmond Ave. — as if it was shot from a giant cannon, perhaps on another planet, and stuck 100 yards into the earth.
Anthony DelMundo/New York Daily News
Burney, commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction, is the guy calling the shots behind thousands of city projects, transforming the landscape in the five boroughs.
The guy calling the shots behind this and thousands of other projects similarly transforming the landscape across the five boroughs is a soft-spoken British bureaucrat you’ve probably never heard of.
“People forget how much of the city is actually controlled by the city,” says David Burney, the commissioner of the Department of Design and Construction. “Every decision we make, from the shape of a curb to the pitch of a roof, changes our experience of the city.”
Burney has a surprisingly unassuming presence for such a big job and does not make headlines like other city-shaping Bloomberg deputies (Doctoroff, Burden, Sadik-Khan). He’s Teddy Roosevelt meets Jane Jacobs: Speak softly and carry a big T-Square.
Burney, the first trained architect to hold the job, lets his buildings do all the talking. And experts are listening.
Map lists hundreds of DDC’s projects around the five boroughs.
“In terms of quality, in terms of output, it’s hard to think of anyone who’s had a bigger impact on the profession in the past generation,” says Rick Bell, president of the American Institute of Architects New York chapter.
That’s thanks in large part to the Design Excellence program Burney launched after taking over the agency in 2004.
The department was created in the 1990s by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani to eliminate the designers at each department and coordinate all work through one office. Now the agency has 27 of the biggest clients in the city as a result.
But design was still an afterthought. Bloomberg vowed to change that.
“All that mattered was the budget and the calendar,” says Burney. “It was literally written into the laws that the city had to hire the cheapest designers and contractors.”
One of the most expensive and complex public works projects was Water Tunnel No. 3, which brings fresh water into the city from the Catskills.
New York’s greatest civic structures — City Hall or the Municipal Building, for example — always sought to inspire buildings in the intervening years were defined by stolid contributions, such as the 1970s-era 1 Police Plaza or many anonymous library branches.
Under the Design Excellence program, Burney and DDC choose two dozen firms bianually to handle all the city’s projects, selected on a case-by-case basis in a competitive process. The goal was to elevate design standards to the same level as budgetary concerns.
“We play matchmaker and marriage counselor,” Burney jokes of his department’s role as the city’s general contractor.
Furthermore, the architects were split into small and large firms, which would be responsible for projects of less or more than $ 15 million. Over the years, this has given dozens of up-and-coming designers the chance to land high-profile gigs.
“Most young architects are stuck doing apartments, maybe a restaurant or two,” says Claire Weisz of WXY, a member of the first class of Design Excellence firms. “Here’s something everybody can see, and something you can be proud of.”
DDC helps coordinate workaday projects like sewer and utility repair under the city streets.
Indeed, the civic pride worked both ways.
“Public works became something cool; people are actually fighting to land these commissions, and you couldn’t say that a decade ago,” says Signe Nielsen, president of the Public Design Commission, which reviews all public projects.
Projects come in all shapes and sizes. There are huge ones like the new Police Academy in College Point, Queens, or the boomerang-shaped Brooklyn Children’s Museum in Crown Heights.
But small projects are just as important to Burney. There are 239 new or expanded libraries the department has tackled in the past 12 years for all three city library systems.
“Whether it’s a new branch or just a new ADA ramp, David brings the same care and attention to each project,” says Joanna Pestka, senior vice president for capital planning at the New York Public Library.
DDC spearheaded the Columbus Circle redesign.
Weisz marvels at Burney’s ability to make every single planning meeting and give little pep talks to the designers.
“He’s like Superman,” she says, “always saving the day.”
Some of Burney’s favorite projects are the dozen EMS stations he’s overseen.
“These guys worked in some of the worst buildings in the city,” he says. “Nobody much thinks about the EMS until they’re on death’s door, but they deserve better.”
Did they get it. The new EMS 3 station on Metropolitan Ave. in Williamsburg is one of the finest examples. It features a zigzag of frosted glass overlooking the busy street, which allows plenty of light in but still provides privacy for the frenetic staff.
DDC is overseeing the permanent closing of Times Square.
The design agency is just as often working on new buildings as restorations, most notably the $ 104 million fix up of City Hall, the first major improvements in nearly a century.
The department has also been at the forefront of the mayor’s commitment to infrastructure, spearheading such projects as the redesigned Columbus Circle and Times Square, and coordinating the new third water tunnel.
“David gets that we need more than bike lanes and plazas,” says Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. “We need beautiful bike lanes and plazas.”
That design sensibility has been with him for years, since he went into public service in 1990. Burney had been working for Davis Brody Bond for five years, since arriving in New York on a project for a British firm and falling in love with the city (and the woman who would become his wife).
He took a gig at the Housing Authority and brought in big-name architects to design community facilities.
The Department of Design and Construction oversaw a City Hall project that returned building to historic glory.
“We wanted to break down the invisible wall that existed between the housing projects and their neighbors,” Burney says.
It’s a mission he has been championing ever since, one he just might continue
under a de Blasio administration.
The two brownstoners — Burney lives in Carroll Gardens and the incoming mayor lives, for now, in Park Slope — are casual friends, and their kids were on the same softball team. Burney even credits de Blasio with saving his life on 9/11, since he was handing out leaflets for de Blasio’s council race rather than sitting at his desk on Church St.
Burney has yet to be approached about staying on the job, and he seems equally happy at the Pratt Institute, where he is launching a “Placemaking” degree program.
One thing he cannot see himself doing is going back to being an architect in private practice.
“Once you step back from the drawing board like this, it’s hard to see anything but the big picture,” he says.