Keeping worksites open in a deserted city: New York’s challenge

While New York copes with its lockdown, worksites remain open

While New York copes with its lockdown, worksites remain open


The spirit of New York City survives in millions of ways. Sylvia’s, one of Harlem’s best-known African-American restaurants and a favorite of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, invited all its customers to pitch in during the coronavirus emergency: order food online, photograph the dish on their table at home, and post it on Instagram. The slogan? “Harlem Strong.”

In just a few hours, the initiative has become a symbol for “the city that never sleeps” at a time when it has been forced to close its non-essential businesses. “You’ll never stop New York City,” the city’s firemen wrote on their T-shirts in the days after the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001.

Nineteen years later, however, the Big Apple really does seem destined to stop. The Covid-19 health emergency in the United States is hitting its most iconic city harder than anywhere else, with the highest number of infections and an evident difficulty in containing the spread of the virus. The crisis is being managed by the city’s administration along with the governor of New York State and the federal government of the United States. So far, it has not halted all of the Big Apple’s businesses. Especially those that are working to build the city of the future.

New York construction sites still open

The order from New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo was clear: “New York State on PAUSE”. All non-essential businesses were shut.

But electricians and plumbers are still on the job, and so are construction workers. Associated General Contractors of New York State Mike Elmendorf CEO told webmagazine ConstructionDive electricians, plumbers and other related construction firms and professionals are working on-site for essential infrastructure or for emergency repair and safety purposes. Construction companies do not need a special designation to continue work, he explained.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is asking the State government if there will be any further clarification about which of Manhattan’s many construction sites can be considered “essential activities.” The mayor said he did not consider the construction of luxury condominiums to be a priority. The topic has been discussed at the City Council.

The worsening of health conditions in the city has convinced New York State to restrict the types of construction sites considered “essential” and therefore still open at this time. However – as reported by the “New York Times” and other news organisations – the distinction in New York is very confusing. In a single day after the new more restrictive measures were issued, the Buildings Department received more than 900 requests for authorization to keep construction sites open.

Construction sites in New York City: the race to the top doesn’t stop

Construction is central to the economic development of the Big Apple, which has seen incredible urban development in recent years that shows little signs of stopping, especially from a residential point of view.

According to the latest report by the New York Building Congress, construction spending will reach $65.9 billion in 2020 and $62.1 billion in 2021.

This race to build more tall buildings, especially the luxury residences such as the new skyscrapers overlooking Central Park, seems to never stop and construction sector employment currently totals161,000 people.

The New York Building Congress, held last October, came amid the Big Apple’s biggest boom in the sector since the beginning of the 21st century.

“The building industry drives New York’s economy and ensures that all of its sectors, from health care to education to transportation, can thrive,” said Carlo A. Scissura, President & CEO of the New York Building Congress.

Non-essential businesses in New York City have closed their doors, but worksites remain up and running. The Associated General Contractors of New York State has informed its members that they do not need a special permit to continue working

The World Trade Center, a construction site always on the move

There are at least ten gargantuan real estate projects that are changing the physiognomy of New York City, and in particular of Manhattan.

The most ambitious is certainly the reconstruction of the World Trade Center after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Although some buildings have been completed, such as the One WTC (the tallest skyscraper in the Big Apple and in the Western Hemisphere) and the 3 WTC, as well as the subway station designed by Santiago Calatrava (where several subway lines connect at the WTC stop), and the 9/11 memorial, there are still several works in progress. These include Building 2 of the WTC as well as the WTC Performing Arts Centre, now known as Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Centre, which is still under construction.

Alongside these major real estate project sites, other projects are developing underground.

Sustainable mobility for the New York of the future

The surface of the city is empty, but underground construction sites continue functioning as they build the routes that will be crossed by new metro lines.

This is the “Rebuilding New York’s Transportation System” project, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $51.5 billion spending plan to improve urban mobility between 2020 to 2024. Of the total budget, $40 billion will be invested in the development of the subway and surface road transport networks. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it has 2 billion users per year, making it the country’s busiest public transportation network. The network allows 97% of New Yorkers to live just over 300 meters (one-quarter of mile) from a bus stop, and 71% to be no more than 700 meters, of half a mile, from a subway stop.

The program aims to improve the functionality of the subway system, modernizing the network, making transport more efficient, and upgrading its 672 kilometres (417 miles) of track.

Many of these are works already underway that so far have not been affected by the health crisis. The aim is to continue to focus on sustainable mobility through a series of infrastructure works that will allow more and more citizens to access public transport.

By 2040, according to the MTA, 16.7 million people will live in the area served by public transport services every day and there will be 557,000 more daily work trips to an outer borough made by NYC residents since 1980.

The New York Building Congress estimates that construction sector will spend $65.9 billion in 2020. The project to rebuild New York’s Transportation system calls for an investment of $51.5 billion between 2020 and 2024

You’ll never stop New York City

Apart from large construction sites and infrastructure works, even New York City, the city that never stops, had to stop in front of Covid-19. On March 23, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the blockade of all non-essential activities. Restaurants, bars, clubs are not allowed to accommodate customers, but they can ensure home delivery. The entertainment industry, from Broadway theaters to cinemas to sports events, is at a standstill, and thousands of workers are affected by the governor’s decision.

In the city 465,000 people work in the hospitality industry; 353,000 people in retail; 473,000 in finance. All sectors that could be affected by the city’s lockdown.

The economic backlash

The coronavirus will cost the state billions of dollars. According to City Comptroller Scott Stringer, during the fiscal year beginning July 1, the city will have a revenue shortfall of between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion, and could rise to as much as $4.5 billion the following year.

Property taxes poured $28 billion into the city’s coffers in 2019. Losses from the halt of commercial activities, tourism and most services — which are the real engine of the Big Apple – must be taken into account when tallying up the economic damage. This setback is still difficult to calculate. But many people expect New York City to get back on its feet again soon, like it has done so many times in the past.