Monday, November 27, 2006

FEIS reissued for December showdown; Gargano says speed not atypical

Twelve days after they determined the Atlantic Yards Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) complete—and just one week after numerous comments were found missing—the board of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) met and certified a revised FEIS, setting up a December 8 approval.

What went wrong? ESDC Chairman Charles Gargano said the omission of 148 comments—with about 1600 already accounted for—was inadvertent. His explanation was hardly exhaustive, blaming some “very large” comments and others “sent to the wrong person,” but he emphasized the agency’s responsiveness to the news.

Indeed, staffers worked weekends to finish the job, something Gargano asserted is not an extraordinary measure. “We have done that many times, worked weekends, over the 12 years that I’ve been here, on many projects,” he said.

Did the FEIS change? “Not substantially,” said Gargano, deeming them “mostly questions that had been asked previously.”

(To find the list of most comments left out, go to p. 20 of this PDF, where 121 people or organizations are listed as “additional commentors.” To find their original submissions, most are under the “Interested Public” link. To track the response to their comments, search on the number associated with the comment. The additional 148 submissions include comments from people who had already submitted comments, so their names do not appear multiple times.)

Approval in ten days

The swift pace, which Gargano asserted was part of the agency’s practice of moving projects along, leaves open the possibility that Atlantic Yards could be approved before the end of the year and the end of Gov. George Pataki’s term. The ESDC board will meet at 10 a.m. on December 8, after a mandatory ten days, to approve the project, sending it to the office of Comptroller Alan Hevesi and the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB).

Does he expect it to move forward before the end of the year? “We have ten days from this point for additional comments and following that, it can come before the PACB,” Gargano replied. “I’d rather put in a way—why should there be unnecessary delay?”

[Clarification: The PACB can vote as early as a week later, though it's possible a review by Hevesi could slow the vote. ] But the big question will be whether the PACB, whose voting members include Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, will put the project on hold. Silver, the only Democrat currently on the PACB, has expressed support for the project, but he has severely criticized Gargano recently.

Will Silver hold up the project so it can be considered under the administration of Governor-elect Eliot Spitzer, a fellow Democrat who’s expressed support for the project? If so, he hasn’t told Gargano. The ESDC chairman said he’d had no contact with either Silver or Spitzer.

More comments possible

Gargano told reporters that the ESDC will continue to accept comments during the ten-day period. "If we get any substantive comments, we will take them into account," said general counsel Anita Laremont. Does the agency have to respond to them in writing? No.

Such an opportunity for additional comments is not specified in the FEIS. “It's not something we typically advertise, it’s something that the SEQRA regulations allow,” spokeswoman Jessica Copen said afterward, pointing me to Section 617.11(a) of the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

It states:
Prior to the lead agency's decision on an action that has been the subject of a final EIS, it shall afford agencies and the public a reasonable time period (not less than 10 calendar days) in which to consider the final EIS before issuing its written findings statement. If a project modification or change of circumstance related to the project requires a lead or involved agency to substantively modify its decision, findings may be amended and filed in accordance with subdivision 617.12(b) of this Part.

Example: one comment

Here's an example of one comment that appeared in the revised FEIS. Architect and Brooklyn Views blogger Jonathan Cohn suggested that event venues have a detrimental effect on residential areas and on vibrant mixed-use communities.

The response was that such facilities “thrive in combination with a strong mix of commercial and residential land uses,” with Verizon Center in Washington, DC as one example.

Cohn, interestingly enough, a day earlier addressed Verizon Center in his blog, writing that “the arena’s major accomplishments - in the eyes of the city’s business community - was to encourage suburbanites to 'sample' the city, and encourage others in the business community to invest in commercial activity downtown, neither of which are particularly the challenge for us in Brownstone Brooklyn.”

Security issues

The Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods last week asked the PACB to urge the ESDC “to perform a thorough public analysis of any potential terrorism issues in regard to Atlantic Yards.”

Gargano was asked about the security issue. “First of all, that’s not part of the EIS,” he responded. “And number two, we’re confident the sponsors will deal with the New York Police Department and take the necessary steps, as we do on all projects.”

Atlantic Center overbuild

I asked him about the “Atlantic Center overbuild,” 1.2 million square feet next door, which was dismissed in the FEIS.

Gargano was clearly unfamiliar with the term, at first asking staff, “Anyone know about it?” He then returned to his general mantra about development: “This is New York City. There’s building going on all the time.… I don’t think it should all be concentrated in Manhattan, so the people in the boroughs have the benefit as well. …The city of New York, they are very much in favor of this project…. City Planning has approved all of this, you know that.”

Eminent domain

Gargano was asked if the ESDC should wait until the Atlantic Yards eminent domain case is resolved.

“There’s not a project that I can remember that hasn’t had some kind of a lawsuit,” he said. “I think what we’re trying to do is get projects built where the majority of the people want projects, and this is the case here, I’m sure. And we will address those lawsuits.”

Majority opinion?

On what he based his conclusion that most people supported this project? “Well, I think—I don’t know how many millions of people live in Brooklyn, and we do have some who are concerned who live in the immediate area. It’s our responsibility to address those concerns," he responded. "But I think, by and large, people in general in the city like to see improvements, new development, job creation, better facilities….”

The question was asked again. “It’s development in general," he responded. "We’re talking about a park being built around the Brooklyn waterfront. We’re talking about MetroTech. We’re talking about Atlantic Yards laying idle for 50-60 years, so I think, what I hear from a lot of people about the project—and people who live in Brooklyn—that this is a project that will help the economy, it will help in job creation, better housing…”

Only in America

During the press conference in Gargano's office, his cellphone rang, and we learned his ringtone of choice is an operatic chorus from “America the Beautiful.”

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