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Organized Chaos

Inside the Mind of the Puppet Master on the Country’s Biggest Job Site: Lower Manhattan

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Robert Harvey, it seems, is always directing traffic.

Photo By Jack Buehrer
“I’m the same as all those project managers [in Lower Manhattan] trying to get their projects done,” says Robert Harvey. “I’m just trying to get all of the projects done.”
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Harvey, and the organization he leads, the Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center, coordinates every move that is made on every job site in Lower Manhattan. More specifically, the LMCCC oversees every project valued above $25 million south of Canal Street from the Hudson River to the East River.

All told the agency is managing about 55 million sq ft of commercial and residential construction, as well as a complete road and infrastructure improvement program. He has a direct line to the governor of New York, the mayor of New York City and the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

But on this sweltering July day, he can’t get a Wi-Fi connection.

“It’s got to be the heat,” says the exasperated Harvey as he waits for a member of his staff to pull up the LMCCC’s website on a projector screen. The website features a map of all of the construction jobs that fall under the agency’s purview and it is to be a key tool in the aptly named Database, Website/Productivity Improvement meeting that is being delayed because of the technical difficulty.

“We’d do better with Dixie cups and string,” he quips with a wry smile. The 13 or so members of his staff seated in the cramped room laugh. They’re used to it. When you’re on the hook for billions of dollars worth of construction in an area that is barely one square mile, things rarely go exactly how you’d expect.

One week later, Harvey, a Boston native and MIT graduate who has managed large construction projects for Exxon, the Port Authority and Washington Group International, took a break between meetings with a group of contractors working in Lower Manhattan to sit down with New York Construction to discuss the now-six-year-old agency that is managing arguably the most important construction program the city has seen in a generation.

New York Construction: What is the LMCCC’s primary objective or mission? It seems to like you’re charged with keeping organized what would otherwise be chaos.

RH: That’s a good way to put it. After 2001 when they were trying to rebuild the streets that were damaged, someone would go in and build a new street and ConEd would come and tear it up and put in a new electric duct bank, ECS would come in and tear it up and put in a new cable, then DEP would come in – nothing ever got done. It was a lot of what we call “construction breakage.” Work upon work upon work upon work. And people who wanted to try to turn Lower Manhattan back around into this viable 24/7 community, who wanted to get these buildings built were kind of stifled. You had to call a whole bunch of people to get permits and go through a whole bunch of processes to get lane closures and all of these kinds of things. We kind of cut through all of that. Our mission is to get everyone’s public and private work done as expeditiously and safely as possible. And also, with our community liaison and outreach to the elected officials to try make everybody understand what’s going on down here, why it has to be painful and that it will eventually get better.

NYC: Original plans had a lot of these Lower Manhattan projects done by now, yet you’re still here.

RH: Theoretically, we should be going away now in 2010. But everything had slipped so drastically because the development plan that was put together for the World Trade Center – again, before we were formed – didn’t make any sense in terms of days. We came in and we looked at [the timeline] and we made it known that it didn’t make any sense. So the plan to finish in 2010 really never was. Now the plan has been re-done and the Port Authority has proceeded pretty much on course. Quite frankly, they decided they were going to be a little more aggressive than what we thought made sense. But something nobody anticipated was the meltdown of the credit markets that stopped a lot of the private work. Everything slowed down, but it’s starting to gain some inertia again and move forward. I’m not going to tell you that the public dates out there are right on, but there is work being done. There will be some sort of a plaza on 9/11/11 [the 10-year anniversary of the attacks] there will be a ceremony on a plaza with some trees and it will keep moving forward.

NYC: When you’re holding these meetings with the contractors, all of the projects have completion dates attached to them. Whether you agree with them or not, do you proceed as if they’re realistic, hard deadlines?

RH: We handle everything from Canal Street from river to river as one massive project. We have all of those dates for all of those projects put into one schedule as if it’s one project. And we track it accordingly. We do that primarily so we can be more, in that case, reactive so we can control and report on the logistics – number of trucks, see when steel is coming in, see when buildings are being completed – so we can get our arms around how to have less impact. We don’t typically vet. We report to the governor and the mayor and they’ll ask us sometimes to look at something like the World Trade Center and do an analysis and we’ll report back to them and tell them what our opinions are and they move it in the direction they feel makes sense. We are the only third-party independent group that does analysis on these large projects and we report that information to the mayor and the governor’s office.

NYC: What is LMCCC’s level of authority? If there is a problem on a job, what happens? What do you do or what can you do?

RH: It depends on the impact. Usually I’ll try to fix it with the agencies that we have contingents that report to. As a professional program manager on big projects, one of the questions you need to ask yourself – and this is one of the reasons why I think someone of my background needs to be in this role – is “How come I’m responsible for getting this project done by a certain date at a certain cost, yet I don’t control, or I don’t get to pick the key resources I want?”

What you learn is, when you’re in these kinds of jobs, whether it’s the lowest project manager out there for the contractor, or an organization like us, your responsibility to get things done always outstrips your formal authority. So you have to use the techniques of persuasion and negotiation to try to get people to subordinate their individual interests toward the bigger interest. Say a commissioner makes a decision that I don’t like or we do an analysis and it’s not in the best interest of getting a project done. I have to try to reason with them. I can’t overrule a commissioner. I’m not reporting up that chain. They have statutory authority. But I can try to work with the parties and come up with something that satisfies everybody and gets it done.

NYC: So you’re very much a negotiator …

RH: Well, again, I think that’s the definition of what a project manager is. It’s the art of negotiation, persuasion, creative thinking, trying to align people’s interest. It’s a lonely position. You’re working between entities that may not like one another very much and you can’t get absorbed into either. You have to stay independent and always try to go to the merits of the issue and try to resolve it. We’re fortunate in that we can see the big picture because of the kind of analysis we do and the master schedule that we keep. We can see the big picture clearer than those who are making decisions purely on the regulatory side. They wouldn’t always agree with that. They would sometimes think that they also understand the big picture. But they don’t do the analysis that we do that gives us that particular insight.

I’m the same as all those project managers sitting out there trying to get their project done. I’m just trying to get all of the projects done. They’re trying to resolve activities that are slowing down their project to get it done. I’m trying to resolve issues that are slowing down their projects to get the whole program done.

 

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