Monday, June 22, 2009

ESDC claims AY will take just ten years (though Phase 2 and new railyard fuzzy); Brennan, Montgomery express dismay

Despite Empire State Development Corporation CEO Marisa Lago’s candid acknowledgment in April that Atlantic Yards would take “decades,” the revised Modified General Project Plan (GPP) to be released by the ESDC Tuesday will assert that the project would take just ten years, the timetable in previous construction documents, even though there’s no contractual requirement to meet the timetable.

Lago, who has resigned but hasn’t yet left her post, vigorously defended the plan at a briefing for local elected officials, held Friday at ESDC offices in Manhattan. ESDC officials asserted that project was essentially the same--thus not triggering a new environmental impact statement (EIS) or vote by the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB).

Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn has said it would sue regarding these issues.

Assemblyman Jim Brennan and state Senator Velmanette Montgomery, in interviews yesterday, both expressed dismay about the ESDC’s plans. Brennan said he didn’t find the timetable credible--”I think the project will limp along piecemeal”--and noted that some three-quarters of the project is “still subject to market conditions and further financing requirements.”

Brennan asserted that, given the Independent Budget Office’s estimate that the arena would be a money-loser for the city, the arena shouldn’t be built. (The arena’s Forest City Ratner’s priority, however, given losses in New Jersey and the potential for new revenues.)

Montgomery said she felt “very frustrated that the ESDC does not consider itself representing the people of this city and state” but rather serves as “an arm of the developer.”

Plan highlights

Among the highlights, eminent domain will proceed in two rather than one phases. At first it would be limited to the arena block and Block 1129, bounded by Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Dean and Pacific Streets, needed for construction staging, worker parking, and, ultimately, interim surface parking. (Site 5 and buildings on Atlantic Avenue in the middle block of the railyard, for example, would be spared initially.)

ESDC spokesman Warner Johnston told the New York Post that the staging of eminent domain will allow Ratner to "defer acquisitions costs"--in essence, paying for only the part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Vanderbilt Yard needed for the arena bock, then paying later for the rest. (Exactly when is unclear, though we should learn at today's MTA Finance Committee meeting.)

While there was discussion about whether ESDC would produce a new cost-benefit analysis--which, actually, was never a full cost-benefit analysis--it’s unclear how and when it will be made public.

The ESDC will hold two community meetings along with a public hearing, likely in July or August. The ESDC board, which on Tuesday is expected to “adopt” (the first stage in approval) the revised Modified GPP, is expected to vote in September on final approval.

(Still, the appeal in the eminent domain case may be pending.)

Tensions as meeting

In separate interviews, both Brennan and Montgomery were measured in their tone, though other sources told me that the meeting was somewhat heated, with two unnamed sources in the New York Post yesterday calling the project a "bait and switch" and saying there should be an investigation into whether the project would be rubber-stamped.

The Post article, which appeared mid-afternoon on the newspaper’s web site, did not, however, appear in print, a sign perhaps of an unwillingness to be seen as challenging the project. (Two weeks ago, however, a Post columnist got some ink to lament the loss of Frank Gehry.)

Besides ESDC staff, the other attendees were Assemblywoman Joan Millman and state Senator Bill Perkins (whose committee oversees corporations and authorities) and staffers for Montgomery, state Senator Eric Adams, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, and City Council Members Letitia James and David Yassky.

Why the arena?

Brennan described the meeting as a “courtesy briefing,” without an opportunity or intention to grill the ESDC on details of the plans.

He said he suggested that, given that foregone property taxes for the arena would be used to pay off construction, “they should either drop the arena and just pursue a residential development or compel Ratner to pay property taxes.”

“There was not an immediate embrace of my proposal,” he said drily.

Inflated assessments?

The IBO reported concerns that the tax assessments on the arena block had risen rapidly, in what may be an attempt to ensure that the foregone revenues are high enough to deliver PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) sufficient to pay off the arena, and I followed up with some numbers.

Brennan, who heads the Assembly Committee on Cities, has joined Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who chairs the Assembly Committee Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, in looking into the curious jump in assessments on Yankee Stadium.

He called the issue in Brooklyn “an extremely serious concern” and said "I will be doing my utmost to get an accurate assessment” of the issue.

Brennan said his staff would research the issue.

Will there be an Assembly hearing?

Undetermined, Brennan said.

PACB role

Montgomery said that, while the changed deal with the MTA, seems like “a major change in the financing,” she’s troubled that the PACB need not weigh in.

She noted that the issues fall under the purview of Perkins’s committee--should the Democrats retain power in the deadlocked Senate--and “he wants to pursue this.”

Role of the public

Montgomery noted that, while the public hearing and public comment process ostensibly serve to gain public input, “I am not convinced that they will actually make changes.”

She contrasted Atlantic Yards to ESDC-overseen development in another part of her district, Hoyt and Schermerhorn streets.

In 1974, ESDC acquired three parcels of vacant land from the City of New York, but the plan was stalled, and, beginning in 1977, the agency leased the sites for short-term surface parking. In 1998, the Brooklyn Borough President's office organized a task force to study and recommend a plan, which has finally come to fruition.

In that case, Montgomery said, ESDC was partnering with the community in establishing the standards, then issuing an RFP to attract developers.

In this case, she noted the ESDC is partnering with the developer, which leads the project.

(There was never an ESDC RFP for the project site as a whole, though there was a belated RFP--18 months after AY project announcement--for the Vanderbilt Yard.)

“This is a huge development project, and the impact goes out a century,” she said, “ and there is absolutely no commitment to the community. I think it is an unacceptable position. Hopefully, that’s one of the things we can factor into reform of the ways authorities work.”

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