February 2018: An Interview with Benjamin "BJ" Jones, the new president
and chief operating officer of the Battery Park City Authority
Benjamin "BJ" Jones was in a café in Tribeca recently when he was introduced to a woman who told him that she was a former resident of Battery Park City. After a question or two, it came out that Jones worked for the Battery Park City Authority. "And what do you do there?" the woman asked. "I'm the president," Jones said diffidently.
A longer conversation with Jones that morning revealed that that interchange said a lot about who he is - an idealist, a man dedicated to public service, approachable and wanting to do the best he can for the Battery Park City Authority and for the Battery Park City community. Although he still seems somewhat surprised to find himself the president of the Battery Park City Authority, he said that he is "delighted."
Jones came to the BPCA in 2014 and worked initially in administration. After a short while, his responsibilities expanded to include Battery Park City Parks programming. That remains a love, along with the BPC's 33 acres of parks and gardens.
"I think that maintaining the public parks is part of the Authority's core mission in sustaining the community," he said, when questioned about whether the BPCA budget would allow the parks to continue to flourish without commercialization and with the staff needed to maintain them properly. "The parks are beautiful but they're not just window dressing."
He added that he was interested in expanding free and affordable programming in BPC's parks. "Since I've had responsibility for the programming, we've invested more in the programming budget," he said. "We've also built out more community partnerships with Poets House and with the BPC Seniors and the Museum of Jewish Heritage. I really want to do more of that."
He also said that he was pleased with having eliminated or cut registration fees for a lot of the BPCA's programs and for the Community Center at Stuyvesant High School.
"Our programs are about contributing and adding value to the community. They're not about generating revenue," he said.
As Jones settles into his new role, he will be dealing with Battery Park City's resiliency and with what can and should be done to protect BPC from climate change and sea level rise. He said that designs are in the works to protect Wagner Park at the southern end of Battery Park City and the ball fields that lie between Murray and Warren Streets, which were gutted by Superstorm Sandy.
The resiliency issue is "considered a high priority by the Board and by the governor and by the broader downtown community," he said. "We do have some capital funding available and we'll have to get more. We'll have to go through another bond issuance, for example, to raise more funds for ongoing resiliency improvements. We're looking at the numbers now. Resiliency measures are not inexpensive. [The cost will be] in the millions of dollars. We're figuring that out now. I'm eager to show progress even this year. We have in the pipeline a North End Avenue resiliency RFP that will enable us to launch, I hope this year, design efforts that will help us figure out in conjunction with the City and with our neighbors to the north, how we can stem the tide from water that would flow in from the Hudson like it did during Sandy. I'm hoping that by us playing a leading role that will help to incentivize people to get a move-on with these efforts."
The issues are complex, but fortunately, Jones is a good listener. "It's important to me not only that we listen to our residents' concerns but that our residents feel heard," he said.
He indicated that that principle applied when it came to deciding what to do with Wagner Park and with South End Avenue, plans for both of which provoked a loud community outcry when they were broached around a year ago.
About Wagner Park, he said, "I think the Authority heard [the community's] objections and takes people's concerns seriously. The renderings and the ideas for Wagner Park were not set in stone. It was a process to get community input. We got some critical feedback. I think that's an important part of the process. I think as we continue on to the next stage of the design process, paying attention to comments that we've already received but also incorporating further input is going to be important."
As for South End Avenue, where a redesign was proposed that changed traffic patterns and entailed possibly filling in the arcades with expanded commercial space, Jones commented, "The Authority's conversations around South End Avenue were well intended but kind of got lost in translation and understandably got a lot of pushback. People were very concerned about building in the arcades, for example, which was not something that the Authority was set on. It was one of many things that we wanted feedback on, and boy, did we get feedback, but message received, which is why we asked. We're not moving forward on that. We're not interested in filling in the arcades. But many people have also mentioned publicly that pedestrian safety and traffic management on South End remains a concern of the community and of ours and of DOT [the Department of Transportation]. DOT at our behest has moved forward with a couple of enhancements that they thought were critically important - signage and some crosswalks at West Thames - but we have continued to talk to them about the pedestrian safety aspects of our plan based on the feedback we got from the community."
Jones realizes that many Battery Park City residents have more immediate concerns such as whether they will be able to afford to remain in Battery Park City, and he's working on that, too.
"I'm conscious of the rent reset that several buildings have coming up," he said. "Gateway Plaza is the big one where conversations are already under way. There are [condo] buildings that are looking at this, too, and have come to us and we're working with them now to figure out the best path forward. Many of the lease provisions change the calculations for the ground rent from being based on a percentage increase to a market value-based increase, which could have a dramatic effect on the ground rents. These are based on leases that were negotiated and agreed to a long time ago. I think that kind of increase is significant and probably one that people didn't anticipate would happen."
The next Battery Park City Authority open community meeting will be on Monday, March 5. The main topic for the evening will be the Battery Park City Authority's financing structure - "what the numbers look like," said Jones, "and where the money goes. I think it's important to communicate that. I'm hoping that we can find a way to be clearer about that with the public. I hope we're successful in providing meaningful information. I'm also hoping to take a step back and revisit what the Authority is about based on our enabling legislation and our responsibilities to more clearly communicate what we're trying to do and how we're doing it."
Come to 6 River Terrace on Monday, March 5 at 6 p.m. to meet the man in charge. He really would like to meet you and hear what you have to say.
— Terese Loeb Kreuzer
Benjamin Jones is confirmed as the president and COO of the Battery Park City Authority
On Jan. 25, 2018, the Board of the Battery Park City Authority (BPCA) voted to appoint Benjamin “B.J.” Jones as President and Chief Operating Officer, a role in which he had been serving in an acting capacity since late last year.
Jones first joined BPCA in 2014 as Vice President of Administration and has overseen internal operations as well as cultural and educational programming in Battery Park City Parks. He has worked to strengthen the Authority’s emergency and continuity of operations planning, streamline operations through initiatives such as online event permitting, champion efforts to exceed minority- and women-owned business procurement goals, and to expand and diversify community program offerings – including an increased annual Parks Programming budget and a 60 percent reduction in membership fees at the Stuyvesant High School Community Center.
Jones has more than two decades of public sector experience, working in that time on a variety of initiatives to improve customer service, safety, transparency and accountability in government. After a career in state and local government consulting, Jones joined New York City government during the first term of the Bloomberg Administration, serving in several roles including Assistant Commissioner of Strategic Planning and Implementation at the Department of Buildings and, later, Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations. Throughout his tenure he was involved in a number of groundbreaking initiatives, including implementation of the City’s first online permitting system, the first overhaul of the New York City Building Code in nearly four decades, expansion of the City’s job application portal, and providing temporary shelter and housing repairs for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Jones received his undergraduate degree in Management from Gettysburg College, a Master of Public Administration degree from American University and a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a certified Project Management Professional.
Shari Hyman, president and COO of the Battery Park City Authority, resigns as of Sept. 30, 2017
Shari C. Hyman, the president and chief operating officer of the Battery Park City Authority, left the BPCA at the end of September. She was at the Battery Park City Authority for four years. Benjamin Jones, the vice president of administration at the BPCA, will serve as interim president while a search is conducted for Hyman's replacement. Hyman is leaving the BPCA to become Vice President and General Manager at Westfield World Trade Center, the largest shopping mall in Manhattan.
Hyman's tenure at the BPCA was marked by many accomplishments and also by controversy. In announcing her resignation, BPCA Chairman Dennis Mehiel said that the accomplishments included "record amounts of new, free, high-quality community programming; a range of vital capital projects completed on time and on budget; ever improving relations with the community at large; a 'AAA' bond rating and reduced over-all budget; and an inclusive approach to comprehensive resiliency planning."
Mehiel also lauded Hyman for assembling "a first-class team of professionals who run the day-to-day operations of the Authority."
However, the Battery Park City Authority during Hyman's tenure also faced criticism over a number of decisions that were made in the last four years. They included the award of contracts at North Cove Marina to entities that had no vested involvement in the community and little or no experience in running a marina; a $272,000 study of purported improvements to South End Avenue that many members of the Battery Park City community condemned as unneeded and counter-productive and a study of Wagner Park, supposedly to improve its resiliency but with suggested changes that many people in the community opposed as a transparent attempt to turn Wagner Park from a beloved community facility into a source of revenue.
Gov. Cuomo appoints three new members to the Battery Park City Authority Board of Directors
The Battery Park City Authority Board of Directors is supposed to have seven members, but since April, following Martha Gallo's retirement from the board, it has been limping along with four members.
On June 14, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced three new appointments: Catherine McVay Hughes, former chairperson of Community Board 1; Louis Bevilacqua, a senior counsel at the law firm of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft; and George J. Tsunis, an attorney, real estate developer and hotel operator.
On June 15, six local elected officials sent a letter to Gov. Cuomo stating that the nomination of McVay Hughes to the board was "heartening" in light of her many years of service as a community leader but that they were "extremely disappointed to learn the appointments will continue to leave the board without a single Battery Park City resident."
The officials pointed out that "The BPCA Board makes decisions that influence the daily lives of thousands of residents, who would provide an important perspective otherwise lacking in Board deliberations."
They asked that the nominations of Bevilacqua and Tsunis be rescinded and that residents be appointed in their place.
The letter was signed by New York State Senator Daniel Squadron, U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Yuh-Line Niou and City Councilmember Margaret Chin.
The New York State governor proposes, but the New York State Senate disposes. Although the governor did not heed the letter from the elected officials, his nominees could not become official until the senate had approved the nominations. When the vote took place on June 20, Sen. Squadron of the 26th Senatorial District, which includes Battery Park City, voted against Bevilacqua and Tsunis. He was joined in a "no" vote on Bevilacqua by 16 of his 62 Senate colleagues and on Tsunis, by 14 "no" votes.
"That's a pretty substantial number of 'no' votes for what's typically viewed as a formality in the Senate," said Zeeshan Ott, spokesperson for Squadron.
Because the new appointees are filling out the terms of previously appointed BPCA board members who have since left the board, the expiration dates for their terms are staggered. Tsunis' term will officially be up in June 2020. McVay Hughes' term will expire on Dec. 31, 2020, while Bevilacqua could serve until February 2022.
However, in practice, many Battery Park City Authority board members continue to serve past the official expiration dates of their terms.
A vote in the Senate on June 21 should change the future make-up of the Battery Park City Board of Directors, but not for awhile. After many years of effort, Squadron was able to announce that the Senate had passed his bill to mandate that at least two Battery Park City Authority Board of Directors appointments be residents of Battery Park City.
The bill, shepherded by Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Yuh-Line Niou, had previously passed the State Assembly.
"It's critical that the Governor sign this legislation and ensure we have residents on the Authority Board," Squadron said.
The New York State legislature has now gone into recess for six months unless it is called back for a pressing matter. In the meantime, the Assembly will send the BPCA bill to Gov. Cuomo for his signature and he will have 10 days from the time it reaches his desk to sign it - or not.
— Terese Loeb Kreuzer
On May 31, 1968, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the Battery Park City Authority Act that authorized a 92-acre planned community to be erected on landfill in the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan. Bang on a Can's Asphalt Orchestra and a reggae group from Brooklyn, Brown Rice Family, helped Battery Park City to celebrate its jubilee on May 31, 2018.
Although there had been intermittent rain during the afternoon, it had stopped by 5:30 p.m. when the festivities started in Rockefeller Park. Some of the people who had worked diligently to create Battery Park City showed up for the celebration and were greeted with hugs and even a few nostalgic tears. Despite the humidity and the dampness underfoot, many people brought blankets and picnics to the park, creating a visual mosaic of the residents, workers, students and visitors who have made Battery Park City what it is today. "No matter how promising that initial idea was 50 years ago, because of you, Battery Park City has become more than any one person could ever imagine," said Battery Park City Authority President B.J. Jones. "Thank you so much for being part of this most special community."
City Councilmember Margaret Chin presented Jones with a proclamation honoring Battery Park City as a successful model for green open space and environmental conservation. In the year 2000, the proclamation said, Battery Park City made history as "the first organization in the country to have a set of 'green' guidelines for an entire neighborhood." Today, more than 13,500 people live in Battery Park City and more than 50,000 people work in BPC. "Battery Park City is widely regarded as a refreshing oasis in our urban jungle," the proclamation said, "and continues to set the bar for communities across the country as a community renewal success story." — Terese Loeb Kreuzer
(Photos: © Terese Loeb Kreuzer)
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Above: Dennis Mehiel, chairman of the Battery Park City Authority, at a Board of Directors meeting on Jan. 25, 2018, congratulating Benjamin "B.J." Jones after his confirmation as president and chief operating officer of the BPCA. Below: Benjamin "BJ" Jones. (Photos © Terese Loeb Kreuzer 2018)
Battery Park City rally urges Gov. Cuomo to sign a bill that would place BPC residents on the Battery Park City Authority Board of Directors
A rally organized by Democracy4BPC.org and attended by City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, New York State Senator Daniel Squadron and New York State Assemblymember Deborah Glick called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill that would put two Battery Park City residents on the Battery Park City Authority board of directors. The rally, attended by around 100 people, took place July 6 on Esplanade Plaza, just south of North Cove Marina.
"We need the people who live here to have a voice in how the community is governed," said Justine Cuccia, a founder of Democracy4BPC.org. At the present time, no one on the Battery Park City Authority board of directors actually lives in Battery Park City.
The bill requiring that two members of the seven-member BPCA board of directors be residents of Battery Park City passed the New York State Assembly before it was taken up by the Senate, where Squadron was its champion. It now needs the governor's signature to become law.
Under the aegis of Democracy4BPC.org, some Battery Park City residents campaigned for months to gather signatures to present to the governor.
Squadron said that the petition made a difference. "You got more signatures than we could have imagined," he said. "It was noticed in Albany, it was noticed by the Authority."
Assemblymember Deborah Glick who, with Assemblymember Yuh -Line Niou, saw the bill through the Assembly, explained that not all bills get sent to the governor's desk at once, and that he has not yet received the bill for his consideration. "People should ask the Governor's Office to request the bill so he can sign it," she said.
Cuccia said that the community needed to "let the governor know that we're not going to go away — we're not going to keep quiet. We're going to keep on fighting until we have democracy in Battery Park City."
— Terese Loeb Kreuzer