Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Did FCR tell government it stopped work at the Vanderbilt Yard? Barely. And why was that train trestle stalled?

So, what did Forest City Ratner tell government agencies when it decided in early December to stop work at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) Vanderbilt Yard.

Not much.

After filing Freedom of Information Law requests with both the MTA and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the only evidence of communication was a phone call, documented in an email report from ESDC ombudsman Forrest Taylor, in which an FCR representative told him they had "completed the work needed thus far." (Click on graphics to enlarge.)

Notably, the documents also point to a stalled construction of a train trestle, with no explanation of how much had been completed nor of when it might be completed.

When queried how far along the trestle might be, ESDC spokesman Warner Johnston responded, "With regards to how much has been completed, FCRC would know." But Forest City Ratner hasn't been doing much information-sharing lately, as DDDB reminds us.

What's missing

No documents provided to me refer to the impact of lawsuits, which was the ESDC's initial public explanation for the work stoppage.

The documents also refer to a temporary train trestle bridge in the middle of Block 1121, bounded by Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street and Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues.

Johnston explained, "It will eventually extend the entire length of Block 1121 to connect the East Portal entrance of Block 1121 to Block 1120." As the photos taken Monday by Tracy Collins show, the trestle seems to be in very preliminary stages, so it's certainly questionable that FCR had "completed the work needed thus far."

The MTA's response was brief: it has no records responsive to my request. So either Forest City Ratner didn't say anything, or whatever communication that occurred was so casual as not to be documented.

Clues from field inspections

Interestingly enough, the ESDC also supplied me with copies of several Atlantic Yards Field Inspection Reports, conducted by Henningson, Durham & Richardson Architecture and Engineering, P.C. (HDR), the agency's environmental monitor.

Those reports suggest that Forest City Ratner had nearly completed some phases of work at the railyard, but also leave enough gaps that support the speculation the developer simply ran out of money and cut off all work.

Note that the reports are based on inspections of ongoing work, not an analysis of the potential work plan. In other words, Forest City Ratner could, for example, tear down the Spalding Building it owns, but has chosen not to do so, instead using the building for offices and (I've heard) to house some workers. After all, should the Atlantic Yards plan fail, the units in the renovated building could easily be re-sold.

Railyard work trails off

An 11/26/08 memo from HDR to ESDC indicates that the only work at the railyard was construction of the train trestle, progressing west to east.

An 12/4/08 report, written a day after I reported that work had stopped at the Vanderbilt Yard, states:
On Thursday December 4th, I met with Staci Zegler to discuss upcoming activities taking place in the railyard. Staci informed me that excavation work is 95% complete and the drilling of all SOE [Support of Excavation] and foundation piles has been completed as well. The only work taking place in the railyard at this time is the construction of the train trestle is continuing, progressing west to east.

The report, under the heading Soil Remediation, also states:
During my discussions with Staci, she informed me that we should expect to receive a DVD of all final soil manifests in mid-December.

A week later

A 12/12/08 report states:
There was no work occurring in the railyard at the time of this site visit.


That begs some questions: Had the final 5% of excavation work been completed? Had the train trestle been constructed?

The report also explains that the developer plans to inject RegenOx, which destroys contaminants, into two railyard lots and must alert the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It states:
HDR will request from FCRC a copy of the EPA notification.


11 days later

A 12/23/08 report again states there was no work occurring in the railyard. And it references some lingering issues:
a. HDR has requested from FCRC a copy of the EPA notification. FCRC has yet to respond.
b. HDR has followed up with FCRC to determine if the injection will be performed via wells, and, if so, confirm that FCRC will properly close the wells and inform the EPA of when and where the wells are closed. HDR is currently waiting for a response from FCRC.

(Emphases added)

Three weeks later

A 1/13/09 report repeats the text directly above, indicating that HDR still awaits a copy of the EPA notification and a response regarding the use of wells.

Also, even though the DVD regarding soil manifests was expected in mid-December, it had not arrived.

Who's in charge?

It's unclear what this all means. Is the failure to respond promptly to HDR a sign of a temporary problem or a more long-lasting one? Could an injection of cash easily restart the developer's work? Why doesn't the ESDC know how much of the trestle has been completed, and why?

While it's not implausible that the work could restart, should there be victories in court by the state and increased cash flow for the developer, the confusion about the trestle and the failure to follow through on announced communications (the DVD) or to respond to requests from HDR raise a question: is the developer in charge, or the state?

Those would be good questions for an oversight hearing on Atlantic Yards.

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