Thursday, February 12, 2009

Atlantic Yards Ombudsman faces audience frustrated with partial answers regarding stimulus funds, Carlton Avenue bridge

Some 13 months ago, in his first appearance at a meeting of the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), Forrest Taylor, the Empire State Development Corporation’s Atlantic Yards Ombudsman, faced what I described as a “cordial but sometimes prickly audience.”

Last night, after another year of contention, (significant) stagnation, and (sporadic) revelation regarding the Atlantic Yards project, Taylor faced a somewhat more prickly and clearly more frustrated audience, which deemed many of Taylor’s--and thus the ESDC’s--answers inadequate or evasive. He spoke before about 60 people at the same venue--St. Cyril's Belarusian Cathedral on Atlantic Avenue.

(Copyrighted photos by Jonathan Barkey)

Notably, he was unable to say whether the ESDC formally backed an effort, encouraged at least by Borough President Marty Markowitz and reportedly developer Forest City Ratner, to gain federal stimulus funds for the Atlantic Yards project. He suggested that the city Department of Transportation bore all responsibility for the contract it signed allowing the reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge to take up to three years, even though the ESDC publicly announced it would take two years. And, as the ESDC has done, he maintained the official position that lawsuits, rather than the credit crunch, have stalled work on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard.

Audience members learned, via Council Member Letitia James (right, with District Leader Olanike Alabi sitting in front of her), that Forest City Ratner now claims that it has completed the “first phase” of work on the Carlton Avenue Bridge, a milestone about which the ESDC has apparently never formally been notified, given that it did not turn up in response to my Freedom of Information Law request.

(Here's video of James's questioning of Taylor. Here's coverage in the Brooklyn Paper.)

Project fundamentally altered?

"When is this project no longer this project and is so fundamentally altered that we need to look at it again and start over?" asked District Leader JoAnne Simon, a candidate for the City Council seat currently occupied by David Yassky.

“It’s a very good question,” Taylor said. “We are not at that point yet--because I’ve asked that question." He said he'd take her concern back to the agency and be willing to respond publicly.

Taylor remained mostly on an even keel, but responded at times contentiously or with a touch of humor. While a few challenged him harshly and several expressed frustration, others said he was personally responsive but in an awkward position as the state’s AY point man. Indeed, he acknowledged he was "out of the loop" on some issues and "pretty low on the totem pole."

Council Member James, who knows Taylor from his previous stint as a Council aide [actually: Chief of Staff to Speaker Gifford Miller], teasingly suggested she’d like to see him in another job.

Also at the meeting, an aide to State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery announced an oversight hearing would be held on April 24.

Opening statement

Opening the Q&A session, which lasted a little longer than an hour, Taylor briefly described his job: “What I do is respond to complaints and questions by individuals, various community groups, as well as elected officials. I try to respond to those questions as quickly as possible. If people need to see me, I schedule appointments.”

“The past year has seen some infrastructure progress [for the project], mainly along Flatbush, Dean, and Sixth Avenues. A new sewer main was installed, a new water main, a new sewer chamber, as well as significant demolitions at roughly 33 addresses. Approximately $70 million has been spent,” he noted.

“But oddly enough, it seems we are no further along than we were a year ago,” he said, to some laughs and mild jeers. “When I came here a year ago, a number of folks said there were issues in the credit market, issues with lawsuits that may slow up or hinder the projects.” That’s what has happened, and Taylor acknowledged, it is probably worse today than it was a year ago.”

Questions begin

Candace Carponter, co-chair of CBN (at right, with Taylor; CBN's Steve Soblick is taking notes), explained that this was a community forum, so members of the media should allow community members to ask questions, and that it was up to Taylor to meet the media afterward. As it turned out, some questions were not fully answered, but Taylor--whose job description does not include media relations--did not stick around for further grilling.

Where does the money come from, one resident asked. The developer, Taylor said, spends the money on infrastructure, and the ESDC will reimburse up to the $100 million it had pledged.

Security questions

Taylor couldn’t shed much light on a report in the New York Daily News that the arena design changed because security glass cost $625 a square foot. Asked by CBN's Patti Hagan (below, right) about a reported early 2008 meeting involving the New York Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security, Taylor said that the meeting--which also included ESDC and FCR reps--had not led to design changes.

“No, that was basically for me, giving me some comfort, that NYPD approved the plans, that they were comfortable with the design of the building,” he said.

Were changes in the glass a result of the meeting?

“The meeting I attended was a confirmation that NYPD was comfortable and happy with the security measures vis a vis that design,” Taylor responded.

CBN’s Jim Vogel pressed him, asking if those changes occurred at any other time.

“I can only speak to the meeting I attended,” Taylor responded.

“We read about the design changes,” Vogel continued.

“That did not hit my radar,” Taylor maintained.

Reason for delays

Taylor was clearly familiar with many of his interlocutors. “My name is Wayne Bailey,” one resident began, and Taylor nodded in acknowledgement.

“I live at the epicenter of this, and one of the things this project was supposed to do was eliminate blight,” Bailey said, pointing out that now “I have nothing but a blighted neighborhood around my area,” He cited increasing trash and building break-ins. “When are we going to get some true dialogue that we can believe?”

“I think ESDC takes the position that the project would be moving along in the way and the spirit that it suggests in the EIS,” Taylor said. “However, there are some folks that are petitioning the court for redress that do not want to see this project happen, and therefore that has resulted in lawsuits, and as long as the lawsuits are hanging out there, the developer feels he’s gotten to a point where he cannot go any further in the process. Y’know, I try and be as transparent as I can... and certainly I will take your concerns back to ESDC, and you can rest assured I will lay them on the doorstep of my boss... Rest assured, when I come to these sorts of events, the concerns that the constituents in the community share with me I share those with the folks at the ESDC.”

Carlton Avenue Bridge

CBN’s Eric McClure (right) followed up: “Both the developer and ESDC have said publicly that the reason that Forest City stopped work on the demolition of the Carlton Avenue Bridge was because of the lawsuits. But there’s no lawsuit that I’m aware of that affects the disposition of the railyard or the work Forest City Ratner is able to do on the railyard. I was wondering if you can address why they think they cannot continue work on the bridge. Why did ESDC and FCR say publicly that it would take two years, but the agreement reached privately allowed for three years?”

Taylor answered the second question: “That agreement is actually between the New York City DOT [Department of Transportation] and Forest City Ratner. The ESDC is not a signatory or party to that agreement. When you tear up a street, a bridge in the city of New York, it is a city issue. That is a negotiation that took place that ESDC was not sitting at the table.”

But the ESDC, McClure pointed out, publicly announced that the closure would take two years. What responsibility does ESDC then take?

“I certainly recognize that ESDC said two years. And that was in fact my understanding,” Taylor said slowly. “The agreement between the DOT and FCR was negotiated--certainly, I was not at the table, and I’m pretty confident no one at ESDC was at the table. Certainly there are things that merit city attention and city approval that ESDC is not going to argue with the city, and that was certainly one of those occasions. ESDC continues to take the position that there are certain agreements we’re not party to, and we’re not going to interfere with, such as the Community Benefits Agreement.”

McClure pointed back to the first question. (Forest City Ratner officials, in sworn affidavits, told a court that the construction schedule was “carefully drawn to allow the arena to be ready for the 2009-10 season by commencing work now on vacant properties that are owned by FCRC, the MTA and the City, with work on properties that are owned or occupied by other parties deferred until the pending judicial challenges to the Project have proceeded....”)

Taylor responded but didn’t fully answer: “The demolition and reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge is pursuant to doing some work in the Long Island Railroad train yard. If that work didn’t have to be done, there would be no reason to deal with the bridge. So, until that work is done and completed, then you can’t tear down the other half and then rebuild it. I think, uh... if you, if some of the folks that are in fact bringing lawsuits to stop the project are successful, then the project doesn’t happen, then the work doesn’t get done in the railyard, then I guess ultimately the bridge has to be rebuilt. But until we get to that point then there is probably hope in the developer’s eyes and certainly in ESDC’s eyes that they will come out ahead in the lawsuit, and then the work will continue and then the bridge will ultimately be taken down, the work in the railroad yard is done and the bridge gets rebuilt.”

FCR’s bridge explanation

Later, Council Member James returned to the issue: “I know you... basically punted on whether ESDC has any jurisdiction over Carlton Avenue [Bridge] and I really take issue with that, because I know you are the lead agency. And I know that as a city we are a creature of the state.”

James read from an email she’d received from Forest City Ratner executive MaryAnne Gilmartin. It stated: “With respect to project delays, we are working diligently with our partners in the City and State toward a closing in 2009 and strongly believe we will achieve that goal. We also expect to resume infrastructure construction around the site later this year. Regarding the Carlton Avenue Bridge, we have successfully completed the first phase of the work. The next stage has been delayed as a result of litigation, which is delaying both further work on the bridge and the construction of the Permanent Yard for the LIRR. While we anticipated that, absent these delays, the bridge could be completed more quickly, the construction agreement we entered into with DOT allows us 3 years to complete the bridge, subject to unavoidable delay. I cannot provide any further detail on timing until the litigation is resolved and we have a Master Closing with the City and State.”

There’s been no Master Closing, Taylor confirmed. Asked about the “first phase,” he responded, “I assume the first phase she’s referring to is taking down the southern portion of the bridge. They have to take down the northern portion of the bridge, as well.”

As noted, FCR apparently never informed the ESDC of that milestone, and there’s no evidence that FCR has completed the “first phase” of a partially built train trestle.

Harsh questions

Scott Turner (right), who of Fans for Fair Play (which is, essentially, his blog) was Taylor’s harshest interlocutor, posing leading questions to the ombudsman after the sequence with McClure.

“You’re saying you blame the community for the delays Bruce Ratner’s own mismanagement caused, is that correct?” Turner asked.

“I’m not blaming anybody. it’s clear there are lawsuits,” Taylor responded.

“I’m asking if Mr. Taylor blames the community for all the problems with the project,” Turner continued.

Moderator Carponter gave Taylor a sympathetic look.

“Yes or no,” Turner pressed on.

“Do you have another question?” Taylor responded bluntly.

“Yes or no,” Turner repeated.

“Do you have another question?” Taylor said again.

“All right, yes, then,” Turner concluded. “Do you support--”

“--Are you going to answer that question?” Taylor asked, intercepting the query.

“Do you support federal bailout money, stimulus package, for Bruce Ratner?” Turner asked. “And does the ESDC support Bruce Ratner getting federal bailout money?”

“Well, ESDC supports this project, and I think it will come down to a decisions by the governor’s office where federal stimulus money goes,” Taylor responded evenly.

“So, even though you [ESDC] are the main progenitors of economic development,” Turner asked, “you yourself don’t have anything to say?

“If you’re asking my personal opinion,” Taylor responded with a touch of exasperation, “it’s really none of your business.”

“Sure it is,” Turner pressed on.

“No, it isn’t,” Taylor responded.

(Here's more on the stimulus debate: letters sent to the Brooklyn Paper in response to its editorial supporting federal funds for the arena.)

Back to the bridge

What happens if the bridge is not rebuilt, another audience member asked. The agreement with the city, Taylor confirmed, provides for liquidated damages.

“If Ratner was not ready to start the railyards work, why did he tear down the bridge?” came the query. “And why did ESDC let him tear down the bridge?”

The audience clapped.

“Once again, the bridge is a city bridge,” Taylor said. “Certain issues are city issues, certain issues are state issues. The ones that are city issues ESDC weighs in on." As for Forest City Ratner's agreements with various city agencies, "[Bruce Ratner’s] free to cut those deals as he sees fit and as the city sees fit.”

What was said in court

CBN co-chair Terry Urban was skeptical: “Here’s a little bit more information on that. As far as I recall, the ESDC was the prime law firm fighting the community’s wish for injunctive relief. The community wanted to delay tearing down the bridge until the lawsuits were decided. But at the time, the ESDC claimed in court that that wasn’t necessary. And now they’re claiming they have nothing to do with the decision to tear it down, and supporting the developer when he says it’s the lawsuits that are keeping it from being rebuilt. I don’t think the ESDC can have it both ways. It looks to me like it’s trying to.”

“Rather than a question, we’d like you to question ESDC why they can’t have a temporary bridge erected while the project is being redesigned,” Urban asked.

“Ms. Urban,” Taylor said steadily, “I’m more than willing to take that question back to ESDC and see that you get an answer.”

The exchange in court papers in January 2008 didn't quite get to the issue. Jeffrey Baker, attorney for the community coalition, including CBN, challenging the project environmental review, warned that, if the lawsuit was successful, appellants "could be faced with a bridge that has already been demolished without the financial means for its replacement or an extended period of time before it is replaced."

Forest City Ratner responded that a contract between the developer and the city obligated the developer's parent company to rebuild the bridge. Baker responded that there was not necessarily "means to assure that the bridge will be replaced in a timely fashion."

ESDC attorney Philip Karmel, stated in an affirmation, "The Carlton Avenue Bridge, whose southern abutment must be removed at this time to complete work on the temporary rail yard, will eventually be rebuilt in its current location, with different supporting girders that are compatible with the layout of the modernized and reconfigured rail yard."

He noted that the environmental review found no significant traffic impacts from the closing. But he didn't indicate that the lawsuit would have any impact on completing the work on the temporary yard effectuated by the bridge closure.

Ombudsman’s role

Raul Rothblatt (right), VP of the Prospect Place Block Association, commented, “I thought this was an ESDC project, not an Forest City Ratner project.”

“At what point do you [ESDC] stand up to the developer in defense of the citizens you’re supposed to represent, and what can you do to add credibility to the state’s process?” he asked.

“As an employee of the state, I attend all the meetings I’m invited to,” Taylor said, “and I take those issues and problems and concerns back to my boss, Susan Rahm, at ESDC. I thought it was clear that I’m not a policy-maker in my role. I hear your problems... and I try to get answers for you.”

For the first time publicly, Taylor identified his boss as Susan Rahm, an ESDC official with a very low public profile. (If you Google her name and ESDC, it comes up empty, though her name does appear on an email I got via a Freedom of Information Law request.)

“How do we know that you’re actually listening?” Rothblatt asked.

Taylor spread his palms: “I think I’m listening to you right now.”

Carponter followed up, asking what Taylor could do to resolve problems posed.

Taylor got a second wind: “Let’s back up for a second. I get answers. Sometimes you don’t like the answer and, y’know, you may have a problem, I bring that back and try and get you an answer, but my job is not to just eliminate all the problems. I can’t do that, because sometimes I take your problems and ESDC, for whatever reason, feels that you guys may not be right on that particular issue, or has a different perspective than you. All I can do is make sure that the concerns that you bring to my doorstep, that you put in letters, emails, phone calls, are heard by the highest levels of ESDC”

“The ESDC is supposed to be the lead agency,” Rothblatt followed up. “I’m a little confused. How can this be a negotiation [with DOT]?”

“I’ve answered the question two times,” Taylor said. “The streets in the city of New York are controlled by New York City DOT.”

Community liaison

In a moderate tone, Daniel Goldstein (right) of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn asked Taylor several questions. “Is there a community liaison any more?” he began.

[Note correction below]
“My understanding is that there’s a community liaison, and that person’s name is Sonya Covington,” Taylor responded.

[Update, 1:30 pm Feb. 12:]
Taylor tells AYR that he misspoke; Bill Murphy is the Community Liaison Officer.

[Original, no-longer applicable text regarding Covington: If so, she’s certainly not occupying the office where the former community liaison officer, Sheldon McCray [corrected], worked. Covington, an assistant VP who’s worked on minority contracting issues, has apparently added the role of community liaison officer to her portfolio.]

Stimulus funds

Goldstein referred to recent reports in which ESDC communications reps at first said the project was not “shovel ready” and thus ineligible for stimulus funds but then said it was.

“That’s what I read,” Taylor responded, indicating he was out of the loop.

Later, he was asked how ESDC changed its position.

“I read it. It was not my quote,” Taylor responded. “The Communications department is actually right next to the CEO’s office. My office is actually in Brooklyn.”

Later, he was asked the definition of “shovel-ready.”

“I think that ‘shovel-ready' will be a federal term,” Taylor said.

A design for the arena?

“Is there a design for the arena, as we speak?” Goldstein asked.

“There was a design for the arena, but”--he smiled slightly--”I read what you read.”

The audience laughed.

“You don’t know,” Goldstein pressed cordially.

“There are times when I’m with you, Mr. Goldstein,” Taylor responded. “There are times when I’m not.”

Project status

Goldstein asked, “It would be good to know--the ESDC really should explain to the people where we are on this project, what it is what the arena is, how much it costs, what the design is. We’re all pretending they can build the project as approved, and we all know they can’t. Why not get a little honesty from the ESDC--say what the changes are, say what they really think is going to happen. Instead, we read in the paper often, the ESDC saying, ‘Ask Forest CIty Ratner.’ That’s really not Forest City Ratner’s job to answer questions for the state.”

“I will work on that, Mr. Goldstein,” Taylor responded.

Interaction with James

James stood up. “I feel for you, Forrest, I really do,” she said. “I hear Obama is hiring.” The crowd laughed. “I respect your intelligence and I would love to see you in another capacity.”

“Did I hear you correctly--you do not know if Forest City Ratner is lobbying the state, Governor Paterson, for federal stimulus funds?” James asked.

"As I tried to make clear, I’m pretty low on the totem pole. It’s not like the old days,” Taylor responded. “So I do not know. So I can imagine, and I know what I read, but I have no firsthand knowledge.”

She asked if ESDC had disagreed with DOT on other projects they’d worked on. Taylor noted he’s only been at ESDC a year and worked only on this project.

Ping-pong balls

“This question on the face of it is a bit naive,” asked Enid Braun of CBN (speaking, with Hagan and CBN's Terry Urban in the background). “Our local Councilwoman would love to be an advocate, but I’m sure if she went to DOT to inquire about their jurisdiction with the bridge, she would be ping-ponged back to the ESDC, and the problem for--a lot of obviously, the crabbiness you get from the community is the experience of being ping-pong-balled relative to many of these things. In all honesty, it’s a naive question, what would you advise for our elected officials to get to some practical truths without being a ping-pong ball?”

Taylor chuckled. “I certainly do feel the crabbiness,” he said, “and I actually feel quite a bit like a ping-pong ball as well,”

“But you’re paid for it,” one audience member riposted.

“But not nearly enough,” he quipped. (Well, his salary last year was reported at $105,000.)

“The Councilwoman certainly can call a meeting between ESDC and DOT and attempt to get to the bottom of it,” Taylor said. “I am always available to the elected officials and their respective staffs.”

Braun continued, “You might be willing to help get the ESDC--”

“I work for ESDC, I try to resolve issues,” Taylor interjected, clarifying that he was not a community advocate.

Unanswered questions

Dean Street resident Peter Krashes (right) prefaced his comment by saying that “Forrest has made himself available and personally been very responsive. The problem is that the ESDC is nonresponsive. There are critical questions that are not answered. I think everyone shares my frustration at not knowing what the project is and what the future of the project is.”

Krashes said he was concerned not just about current blight but “the goals of the state, which is to eliminate blight, will be exactly what the project achieves.” He asked the state to look at the potential income of the project, citing the market for apartments, access to credit and public money. “The government presumably is looking rationally at the project.”

Would federal stimulus money, he asked, lessen the burden of the developer or lessen the burden of government?

“We’re not there yet,” Taylor responded. “No bill has been signed. So I can’t imagine the ESDC knows what the money can be used for. To my knowledge there’s no process established to rank projects.”

As for concerns about subsidies and the condo market, Taylor responded, “My bosses say that the agency I work for supports this project, and the developer has not said that he is not trying to pursue this project, has not walked away from this project. So we are, as I said earlier, where we were a year ago, except the credit markets are probably in a much worse situation.”

Krashes said the Community Liaision Office closed two months before work stopped. (It’s not clear if the office at the 24 Sixth Avenue is currently staffed.) He said that the security company Forest City Ratner hired to protect the site is gone.

“Security’s been dropped by Forest City Ratner, and that’s outrageous,” Krashes concluded, pointing out that had nothing to do with lawsuits.

Assessment

Brad Lander (right), director of the Pratt Center for Community Development and a candidate for the City Council seat currently occupied by Bill de Blasio, noted many believe that tax-exempt bonds for Yankee Stadium were based on inflated assessment values. Has ESDC made sure that the same techniques of land valuation didn’t apply in the case of Atlantic Yards?

“To my knowledge, no one has gone back to do that,” Taylor said.

Traffic issues


McClure followed up, asking if there was any analysis of Fire Department response times since the bridge was closed.

No, Taylor said, but he’d be willing to check.

“The last time you were here, in response to questions about the future of traffic, you had stated a traffic plan was being worked on,” McClure noted, asking about its status.

Taylor again said he’d check on it.

Arena cost

“As of today,” McClure continued, “do you know if the estimated cost of the arena is still $950 million, or has that gone up or down?”

“Well,” Taylor said. “I know that they are engaging in some value engineering to get the cost down, so I don’t know where they’re at today... It’s still 950 until they come back and say it’s not something less.”

“No longer this project”?

Simon (right) had the final question: “It seems to me that there have been enough changes in the air and in the credit markets that this project at some point is no longer this project. My question--and I don’t know whether you have an answer, but I’d like you to come back with an answer--is: when is this project no longer this project and is so fundamentally altered that we need to look at it again and start over?”

“It’s a very good question,” Taylor said. “We are not at that point yet--because I’ve asked that question. I will take your concern back and obviously more than happy to come here” and discuss it.

Lingering over that was the recognition that the design for the arena has apparently changed drastically and that few outside the developer’s office believe the announced ten-year construction schedule is plausible.

As the meeting closed, James asked attendees to sign a letter asking Governor Paterson not to consider Atlantic Yards for stimulus funds.

6 comments:

  1. WOW, 60 people attended.

    SIXTY people to discuss a project that will alter the face of Brooklyn!

    SIXTY people who have been doing the same thing for so long that the ombudsman knows most of them.

    You missed the lead(s): there is no diminution in ESDC's support of the plan; that the Daily News story, which was based on ONE source, appears to have been dead wrong; and that the project is neither abandoned nor dead nor changed significantly enough to warrant a review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Or: the ESDC is not willing to publicly say it supports stimulus funds.

    Or: the ombudsman knows them because they call him with concerns and complaints.

    Or: he didn't deny the Daily News story.

    Or: while the project is certainly not abandoned nor dead, no one believes it would take a decade or be the same project as approved.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Bobbo, NetIncome, Mr. W.: if you're such an expert, why don't you tell everyone who you are? And maybe show up in Brooklyn and do a little reporting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bobbo should sign his name Bob Windrem.

      Delete
  4. I didn't attend because I didn't want to hear the same old same old again. So the reality is nothing new. I like Forest as person. But calling him an "Ombudsman" is a stretch. What he is is a flak catcher(that's the nice way of saying it). the answer is the governor doesn't want to hear it and the ESDC wants to hear it even less. As long as Shelly supports this it will go forward.

    ReplyDelete
  5. i didnt go. and i continue to be concerned about the abuse of process.

    raw numbers for a perfunctory, pointless meeting are not what i, or other opponents are about. the powers that be would be well advised that our attendance, or lack thereof, at such a meeting does not indicate more than the tip of the iceberg.

    ReplyDelete