More than 203 days after the position was first announced (clock via NoLandGrab), the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) announced it finally hired an Atlantic Yards ombudsman, Forrest R. Taylor, to serve as “the dedicated project coordinator and liaison between ESDC, elected officials, community representatives and the public.”
(Note: The ESDC has been using the term "ombudsperson;" however, given that the person selected is male, I'm going to join most of the press and go with the more traditional "ombudsman.")
Taylor (below), who started in the ESDC’s Manhattan headquarters on Monday but will be based at an office to be established in the area around the project site, comes with some significant credentials. He has served as chief of staff to City Council President Gifford Miller, deputy executive director for operations for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and chief of staff for the deputy mayor for finance and economic development.
Most recently, according to an ESDC news release, Taylor served as manager of Prowess Initiatives and Analysis, a boutique firm advising corporate clients on government relations and corporate communications.
(Photo from the New York Times)
Avi Schick, President and COO of ESDC, praised Taylor: “Forrest’s background in government, transportation and community affairs makes him ideally suited to provide the public with direct information and direct access to the state and the developer.”
(Direct access to the developer? That will be very interesting. What happens when Forest City Ratner won't comment?)
Taylor said, “This ombudsman position provides an opportunity for me to draw on all of my experiences in and out of government and is an exciting next step forward in the State’s effort to increase the public’s connection to this important and transformative project. I look forward to working with all stakeholders to insure the community has access to current information and swift responses to questions and concerns.”
Some of the stakeholders--or at least community members--Taylor will encounter undoubtedly feel the project may be “important and transformative” in ways far less salubrious than the ESDC believes.
"I work for a politician, so it's all about his vision," Taylor said, in an admiring 7/9/02 New York Times profile. In his new job, he in a sense works for a politician—Gov. Eliot Spitzer, an Atlantic Yards supporter—but also has a much broader set of constituencies. The Times profile portrayed Taylor as more interested in policy than electoral politics and as proud of his work on the restoration of Grand Central Station. (Regarding Atlantic Yards, there's nothing on the project site to restore, but there's a lot of policy to master.)
The ESDC stated that Taylor “will oversee the project schedule and activities and meet with elected officials and community groups to brief them on process, activities and timetables” and also have the job of “relaying and working through public concerns with the proper administrative agencies.”
The questions begin
If John Q. Public has a question for Taylor, how to contact him? (Updated) Phone: 212-803-3123; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For how long is Taylor hired? (The project is officially supposed to take a decade, but even project landscape architect Laurie Olin has suggested it could take 20 years.) Taylor, Carter said, is an ESDC employee, so he's not hired on a contract. (That leaves things open-ended.)
How much will Taylor be paid, asked the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, citing a New York Times report that he'd resigned from the City Council job after not getting a raise from $175,000. (Updated) $105,000 a year.
And why did the hiring take so long? “We wanted to find the right person, a combination of private industry and government skills,” Carter said. Of course, as the New York Daily News reported in a 10/16/07 article headlined Months later, Atlantic Yards still in search of a watchdog, three candidates also turned down the job. Either they passed up a worthy challenge or evaded a potential migraine. The New York Observer's observation: "Duck."
"Informational" vs. "political" questions
Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn poses a first tough question for Taylor: "What makes the Brooklyn arena's proximity to streets different from the Newark arena that it will not require street closings?"
It's hard to imagine that Taylor will pry more out of the agency than it has already said, but it's also hard to imagine that such questions will stop.
Such challenges may cause the ESDC to try to draw a line between questions that are "informational"--easily accessible as long as the right people/agencies are queried--and those that are "political" and "legal," the answers for which the ESDC has said all that it will say because of internal or legal constraints.
Can Taylor do a credible job while maintaining the credibility of such boundaries? He'll surely have opportunities to prove his value.