Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Atlantic Yards pause isn’t enough, groups say, seeking more oversight

City Council Member Letitia James may be the elected official most clearly opposed to Atlantic Yards, but her reaction to the incident Thursday at the Ward Bakery—calling for a suspension of demolition work—turned out to be exactly what the Empire State Development Corporation and developer Forest City Ratner agreed to late yesterday morning. That meant James was ahead of Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who issued a more cautious statement Thursday, and other elected officials who were prepared to ask yesterday for such a suspension.
(Photo by Robert Guskind of the Gowanus Lounge.)

Still, the Atlantic Yards pause isn’t sufficient, said elected officials and representatives of community groups at two press conferences yesterday. They want a significant amount of oversight beyond what currently exists; an ESDC spokesman yesterday hinted that some increased oversight was coming, but wouldn't specify it.

It's an open question as to whether that oversight will come before the completion of Department of Buildings investigation into the causes of the collapse of a 200-foot parapet, which rained debris five stories down on cars and the sidewalk--and, fortunately, no people.

The New York Times today focused only on the temporary stoppage of work, as did a widely-distributed Associated Press article, while the Post cited the additional request for oversight.

CBN press conference

The first of the press conferences near the site of the damage was held by the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) at noon, with representatives of community groups, James, State Senator Eric Adams and a representative of State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. I couldn’t make it, but I spoke afterward to some participants and got the prepared remarks of CBN co-chair Terry Urban.

Urban was forceful: “We are not going to allow anyone to reduce our community and our laws to rubble, like we saw happen yesterday right behind us.” On Monday, she pointed out, CBN participated in a demonstration protesting demolitions as premature, and a hundred people marched past “this very spot” on Pacific Street, where, had the parapet fallen then, many could have been injured.

Urban criticized Forest City Ratner’s Community Liaison Office as ineffective and pointed out that the developer’s web page that’s supposed to share vital information with the community had not been updated since mid-March.

Dan McCalla of the Four Borough Preservation Alliance told me afterward that an independent engineer was needed to provide a second opinion in the investigation. “They’re saying rain caused that,” he scoffed, referring to speculation by a Fire Department representative that the heavy wind and rain two weeks ago jeopardized the building. “The building's been up for 97 years.”

Oversight questions

Urban further criticized the ESDC for failing to appoint an environmental monitor and hiring, as an interim, the consultancy AKRF that produced the Environmental Impact Statement that CBN and 25 other groups are challenging in court. “But where are they? Nowhere to be found!”

“The ESDC approved this project and authorized a State override of virtually all local laws,” Urban noted. “It cannot now put the entire burden back on the City to safeguard the community.”

Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors, pointed out that, last summer, the ESDC gave the public 73 days to respond to the 4000-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement. However, “81 days ago, ESDC issued an RFP for an environmental monitor, and that critical position has yet to be filled,” he told me afterward.

Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) also asked for more oversight.

Unauthorized demolition?

Urban also pointed out that a community member had shot video of workers hauling huge bags of debris from the Ward Bakery building, but the Department. of Buildings and Dept. of Environmental Protection didn’t want to hear about it.

“And just what was in those huge bags of debris?” Urban asked. “Either this building was built out of 100% asbestos or some unauthorized demolition was going on in violation of the law.”

(I missed the incident in which workers at the Ward Bakery site apparently called the cops, misidentifying the press conference as a demonstration, as reported on NoLandGrab.)

BrooklynSpeaks press conference

Less than an hour later, there was another press conference, sponsored by BrooklynSpeaks. Why were there two press conferences offering similar messages, albeit with different tones? BrooklynSpeaks’ Gib Veconi chalked it up to having a short time to prepare and coordinate.

It's not unlikely that some of the elected officials willing to stand with the more moderate BrooklynSpeaks, which has called for major changes but won’t challenge Atlantic Yards in court, want to steer clear of CBN, DDDB, and fellow plaintiffs in the lawsuit calling for the environmental review to be thrown out.

The distinction was lost on most of the press covering the Atlantic Yards issue yesterday; the CBN press conference drew a much larger turnout, likely because it was earlier.

LDC wanted

“We’re relieved that the State has halted work on the Atlantic Yards site in light of yesterday’s accident. But halting demolition alone does not go far enough. Work must not resume until an oversight mechanism for construction has been established,” said Michelle de la Uz, Executive Director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, in the BrooklynSpeaks statement.

BrooklynSpeaks has long called for a local development corporation or similar body to oversee the project and involve community residents. Such LDCs, Veconi told me, are common in ESDC projects around the state.

BrooklynSpeaks, as had CBN, pointed to some past incidents around the project footprint that have received too little oversight and also noted the ineffectiveness of the Community Liaison Office.

Those at the press conference included City Council Members James, Bill de Blasio, and David Yassky, Assemblyman Jeffries, and State Senator Adams, along with the Rev. Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church.

Looking forward

“The current plan to demolish the Ward Bakery and other structures to provide over 8 acres of surface parking for 1600 cars that will be with us for decades is deeply troubling. This kind of poor planning is the direct result of the public not being involved in the decision-making for this project,” said Jo Anne Simon, District Leader for the 52nd Assembly District, on behalf of BrooklynSpeaks. (The organization sponsored the "No Demolition for Parking" rally April 15.)

A lingering question is whether the damage to the bakery will accelerate plans to demolish it, rather than shore up efforts by preservationists to keep the building.

One voice silent so far has been Borough President Marty Markowitz, a fervent supporter of Atlantic Yards. What will Marty say?

Today, a wide variety of community members, including those from components of CBN and BrooklynSpeaks, are expected to participate in UNITY 2007, an effort to produce a plan for the MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard should Forest City Ratner’s project not proceed.

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