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June 26, 2007
by Rick Bell FAIA Executive Director AIA New York

Speaking at the New York Building Congress breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental on June 19, The Port Authority of NY & NJ Executive Director Anthony E. Shorris led off his remarks by quoting Mies van der Rohe: “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.” True enough, but the remarkable thing is that we now have a Harvard and Princeton-educated Port chief executive who not only knows that Mies is more, but knows how to use him to talk with construction industry and labor leaders about a new spirit of openness at the Port Authority. The remarks, paralleled by pronouncements by Governors Spitzer and Corzine, is indicative of changes in Port Authority Board rules and procedures that will allow for greater public participation (see also “Port Authority Tentatively Approves Changes Aimed at Increasing Public Scrutiny,” by Ken Belson, The NY Times, N.Y./Region, 06.22.07).

Shorris previously served as Deputy Chancellor for Operations and Policy at the New York City Board of Education, and was a faculty member at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. For the June 19 audience of building execs he spoke of the Port Authority’s goals in the following words: “The Port Authority should be marked by the audacity of the past without the arrogance. The Port Authority is fundamentally a BUILDING agency. Quality of design, excellence of design, is one of the criteria by which we judge projects. We will see what can be applicable from the Federal GSA model. Buildings like the transit hub by Calatrava are more than functional, they are grand.”

He noted that, “We are making the agency operate more transparently, doing things that other governmental agencies have been doing for a long time. The Port Authority should meet or exceed the standards of both states and institutionalize those changes so that these improvements survive the tenure of any Director. Ultimately, the agency should not do anything that it is afraid to talk to everyone about. The Port has been moving in this direction for months. We are proud of what we do, and showing people what we do. Openness and transparency do not conflict with the excellence of our staff and our ability to deliver projects.” After the attack on the World Trade Center, where many Port Authority employees perished, there was a renewed sense of purpose and a glimmering of openness in an agency previously known for its secretive behavior. With Board meetings now to be open to the public and press, more information about project planning and design consultant procurement will be accessible.

During the Q&A period, Shorris elaborated upon the Port Authority’s role in several major upcoming projects or plans, starting with the long-planned transformation of the Farley Post Office Building into a major rail hub. He noted, “At Moynahan Station the Port Authority’s role is predominantly in collaboration with New Jersey Transit on Access to the Region’s Core. We are also looking at a new baggage-checking facility. That grand transit hub needs to be fully integrated, linking as well to the PATH system at 34th Street.”

In response to a question about Representative Jerrold Nadler’s quest for a rail freight tunnel, he said: “Freight capacity needs to be expanded and we need to get some trucks off the road to reduce air pollution. The movement of freight in the region is something that the Port is best able to manage. It is a central question environmentally…. The Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel general plan is to be a joint effort with New Jersey Transit — we need to do this together, and we’re committed to a robust partnership to make sure that we get this implemented since it is so important to the two states.”

His conclusion about collaboration was optimistic: “The identification of enormous infrastructure projects in the region is an important thing — it has to be something that over the long term generates more revenue. Both governors are interested in moving big infrastructure projects. But the Feds are not great partners on this, so we have to find some locally generated revenue. We are fortunate now to have two governors and a mayor who are desirous of getting things built. They are so much of a mind that it is great to watch them work together. The public has not seen its government look to execute great public works the way we have the possibility to achieve now. The public needs to see that this can happen. People see a connection between resources and the quality of their lives. If we can show people that investments in infrastructure can lead to better quality of life, there will be support.”

We look forward to ongoing opportunities to see the palpable results of these process changes and project planning overtures.

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