Friday, February 23, 2007

A visit to the Atlantic Yards Community Liaison Office

So you're a member of the community and you take seriously Forest City Ratner's press release on Tuesday, which announced that "an Atlantic Yards Community Affairs Liaison Office, located onsite at 24 6th Avenue, will be open from 8am-4pm weekdays to provide updates and answers to any questions or concerns" about the preparatory work that's begun.

Yesterday morning, two days later, you walk up to the office, in the former Spalding building that was renovated into condos, at the corner of Pacific Street, part of the planned arena block. (After demolition of the building, which is perhaps 60 feet tall, the lot would apparently be the site, in part, of 219-foot Building 3 and border 511-foot Building 4.)

The sign doesn't mention opening hours; that might deter some who haven't seen the press release or the web site. You remember what BrooklynSpeaks wrote: Interestingly, the sign doesn't clearly indicate that the office has been established by Forest City Ratner. And there's the crux: the government seems to be entrusting a private developer that's ultimately answerable to investors with the responsibility to manage the concerns of the community, rather than a public entity that's responsible to the public.

You open the door. A security guard asks if you work for the developer. No.

You tell him you're here to visit the new office. He asks you if you're a member of the community. Yes, you say, and ask if he is a member of the community; apparently he's not. You sign in. (They also have security cameras outside, just in case.)

The guard works for CopStat security, which, you remember, contributed $3100 to Tracy Boyland's Senate campaign, which was notable for her pro-Atlantic Yards stance, use of a consulting firm linked to Forest City Ratner, and failure to answer press questions.

[Update: despite a sign for CopStat, which also works on the project, actually the guards work for Eddington & Associates.]

He makes a phone call. Before the designated representative, a pleasant young fellow named Marcin, descends the stairs, you encounter Tom Tuffey, a member of Forest City Ratner's governmental affairs staff. You have a cordial though not completely pacific history with Tuffey, given that he last month cross-checked you when you tried to question CEO Bruce Ratner.

No place to sit

You follow the two into a former loft condo with polished wood floors, handsome wood shelves, and no furniture whatsoever. It is a stunning space, with ceilings at least 15 feet high. (Here's a look at another loft when it was occupied. When Forest City Ratner bought out the residents, the price was over $1 million for this first-floor loft--plus the seller's silence, assuming that the policy regarding nearby condos was practiced here.)

It is the first few days of operation and they promise a desk is coming. You wonder: Will the models and posters from the Oz-like Atlantic Yards Information Center be moved here as well?

Marcin hands you the press release that you already have. Tuffey asks if you're there as a community member or as press. Both, you say; you have only a few questions.

The questions

Is the Community Benefits Agreement, the document is cited so enthusiastically in the press release ("a voluntary and legally binding agreement signed by eight groups and ratified by over 200 community groups and leaders"), available at the Community Liaison Office?

No. Will it be? They will get back to you. (For some skepticism about that ratification, check the New York Observer.)

What if someone's concerned that construction has begun too early in the day or that the noise is excessive?

Call here, Tuffey responds. Surely, you ask, there's also a governmental role. They say they will get back to you.

When might Fifth Avenue be closed, you ask, and when might buildings be torn down for interim surface parking?

Again, they will get back to you.

A quick response

In the afternoon, just a few hours later, you receive a cordial but unsigned note by email, from communityliaison@atlanticyards.com:
So you are clear, the office's primary function is to act as a liaison for FCRC and the community with respect to construction-related issues. It is a contact point for the community and local leaders to voice any concerns about construction activities. It is not a public relations office and any questions you have in the future, unless specifically construction related, should be directed to our PR office.

The questions posed, you think, were pretty much construction related. Still, you appreciate their prompt reply, especially since questions you've directed to the PR office have generally been ignored.

Then again, you remember that this was predicted by BrooklynSpeaks just a day earlier: If past experience is a guide, this office will appear responsive to community concerns, but little of substance will actually change about the plan or the proposed mitigations as a result of them. This will not be surprising. We should expect private companies to put their own interests first, ahead of acting in the public interest.

And you remember the Forest City Ratner press release two months ago, when the project was approved, which stated: Forest City Ratner will also open a community affairs office on the project site that will be operated and staffed during all phases of the construction project.

You think that "community affairs" may have already been narrowed to "construction-related issues."

The answers

The letter continued with specific responses to the questions posed:
1. Will there be a copy of the CBA available for public viewing at the CLO?
A. The community liaison office is a contact point for the community and local leaders to voice any concerns about construction activities not questions about the CBA. The CBA is available on our web site and we are happy to provide a hard copy to anyone who requests it. If anyone has questions about the CBA they are encouraged to contact us at info@atlanticyards.com.


OK, you think, but if they're going to cite the CBA in the press release they give out, shouldn't people have access to the document? It would remind readers, for example, that the CBA signatory assigned to monitor construction activities doesn't really have anything to do.

2. Which government agency can members of the community approach if construction starts too early, or is too noisy, etc?
A. The fastest and best way to communicate any question or concern is to dial 311. The appropriate agency can then be notified and the issue addressed.


As for the questions about Fifth Avenue and interim surface parking, the response was the same:
A. It is too early in the process to address this question. We will of course provide the necessary alerts, information and updates as we get closer.

Direct communication

The press release issued 2/20/07 stated:
“As always, our contractors will conduct this work in the least intrusive way and we will be in direct communication with the local community to provide updates and address any concerns,” said Jim Stuckey, President of the Atlantic Yards Group at FCRC.

You wonder what kind of lead time there will be in the future. In this case, the announcement of the "prep work and construction of a temporary rail yard" was made the day the work began, though some news outlets got wind of it a day earlier.

Surely, you think, if a major street is closed, not just the developer but also the government will have to communicate with the community.

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