Tuesday, September 18, 2007

CBN asks: where's ESDC's promised ombudsperson?

In July, nearly two months after the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) announced it would hire an ombudsperson—a new position—serve as a liaison between ESDC, elected officials, “community representatives” and the general public regarding the Atlantic Yards project, an ESDC spokesman said, “We are in the final stages of the process and expect to have the ombudsperson hired soon.”

But it’s been more than two more months, work on the Ward Bakery—where the fall of a 200-foot section of parapet alarmed neighbors and led to violations—has resumed, and still no ombud. Community critics have lost patience.

(Above, Robert Puca of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods and the unknown ombuddy.)

Waiting too long

So the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), taking advantage of some symmetry—the wait has been 132 days, twice the amount of time the public was given to respond to the Atlantic Yards Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS)—yesterday held a press conference and protest pointing out the long wait.

CBN, a coalition of community groups formed to represent the community in response to the DEIS, is also a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the environmental review. (Here's coverage from Brownstoner and Metro.)

The press conference was held on a tiny stretch of sidewalk at the northwest corner of Pacific Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, with some of the ten people or so nudged into the street. Preconstruction site prep went on noisily behind a fence that extended out into the sidewalk and work will continue for two years, a worker said.

The ESDC, charged CBN spokesman Jim Vogel (right), is “not too different from the last bunch we were dealing with. It’s unsupportable that we haven’t gotten any oversight so far.”

“ESDC appears to have its priorities backwards,” said CBN co-chair Candace Carponter in a press statement. “As a public agency, ESDC should be looking out for the public’s interest. Instead, it drags its feet when it comes to important community safeguards… It's a matter of public safety. ESDC’s failure to provide proper oversight of this project is a recipe for disaster – as we have seen with tragic consequences at the Deutsche Bank building in Lower Manhattan.”

More criticisms

CBN also pointed out that the administration of the noise mitigation program—which is supposed to provide double-paned windows and air conditioners for neighbors—“has been haphazard at best, yet ESDC has provided no opportunity for affected residents to seek redress.”

(In the background, the Atlantic Yards site and behind it the Atlantic Terminal 4B tower, visible from the press conference position before workers tacked up some screening material.)

CBN also pointed to errors in Construction Updates issued by ESDC, charging that “ESDC has not provided any opportunity for affected residents to appeal the scheduling of double-shift work that, while causing significant inconvenience to residents, appears calculated to aid the developer’s timetable.

ESDC response

ESDC spokesman Errol Cockfield issued a statement: “The Empire State Development Corporation has met repeatedly with community groups, elected officials, and even opponents of the Atlantic Yards Project. Addressing the concerns of local residents has been a chief priority. ESDC has also been taking the time necessary to interview candidates before selecting an ombudsperson who will be a liaison to the neighborhoods in and around the project's footprint. Given the prominent role the ombudsperson will play it's important that we make the right choice, not the expedient choice.”

That was met with some skepticism, since ESDC has not been particularly forthcoming with critics, not including some on its regular construction update lists.

(Above, the press conference at one end, the AY site set off by fencing and barriers, and a tower rising in Clinton Hill.)

Cockfield noted that ESDC's environmental monitor is working closely with developer Forest City Ratner to ensure that the developer fulfills its commitments that were part of the Final Environmental Impact Statement. As for questions about the double-shift work, he pointed to the Department of Buildings (DOB).

DOB statement

I queried DOB spokeswoman Kate Lindquist, who said in a statement, “In the interest of public safety, the Buildings Department has been issuing after-hours work variances for the property owner’s contractor to conduct abatement work at 800 Pacific Street since early July. The after-hours work was limited to abating and removing the parapet in a safe manner. Buildings records show no complaints about after-hours work have been received for 800 Pacific Street. New Yorkers can file a complaint about after-hours construction work by calling 311.”

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