Thursday, September 17, 2009

Block association criticizes ESDC for bait-and-switch, from "community sessions" to "public informational sessions"

So, did the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) fulfill the promise made by then-CEO Marisa Lago at the June 23 board meeting to hold "community" question-and-answer sessions?

The ESDC thinks so, but it require a bit of a rhetorical switch to "public informational sessions."

"Knowing the interest in this project, we have committed to have additional community sessions beyond what is required," Lago said. "And we will be having a community session--a question-and-answer session in the community--before the public hearing and then another after the public hearing. And at those community sessions, there will be the opportunity for community questions to be answered."

The first session was held July 22, with representatives from the ESDC and Forest City Ratner facing some tough questions. The second was held this past Monday, co-sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and focusing on the arena design--with the moderator screening out questions about process.

Lago said, "So, in total, there will be a multi-month process, in which there will be opportunity for input, and the testimony at the public hearing will be summarized and presented to the directors at a subsequent board meeting."

Though Lago's words weren't precise, as I've pointed out, the implication was that the community information sessions would help residents formulate input to the ESDC board, including comments at the public hearing and comments submitted in writing.

That didn't happen, given that the comment period closed August 31.

ESDC description

At today's board meeting, Senior Counsel Steven Matlin described the sessions briefly: "In addition to the public hearing, which spanned some ten hours, the corporation participated in two public informational sessions."

Complaint lodged

In a letter to the ESDC distributed today at the board meeting, Peter Krashes, representing the Dean Street Block Association, revealed that his group asked to host the second community session, because community members had follow-up questions, but never got a response.

Moreover, he noted that the community informational meeting had been replaced by a “public information session” outside the time for public comment and that that session was preceded by little notice.

"[I]t is apparent it is not essential to the ESDC that we trust them," he concluded.

The letter

Krashes wrote:
On June 23rd, when the ESDC board adopted the modifications of the general project plans for Atlantic Yards, then President Marisa Lago promised as part of the public review process, two community informational sessions with the opportunity for questions and answers.

On August 10th, following the initial community informational session and the public hearings for this review process, our block association sent a letter to Mr. Mullen requesting the opportunity to host the second community informational session promised the public. In that letter we noted that the plan and implementation of the Atlantic Yards Project uniquely and adversely affects the community in which the members of our block association live, work and worship. Because President Lago referred to the community information sessions in relation to the public comment period, we reasonably assumed the information sessions were to provide the community information as a way to make effective comment on the project. We noted that our members have approached us with questions about the project we continue to be unable to answer, and that the previous had community information session had not been satisfactory because it did not offer an opportunity for questioners to follow up on their own questions directly. We never received a response from the ESDC.

We counted on the second meeting as a way to follow up on answers we found unsatisfactory at the first, and as a way to inform our comments. Unfortunately, the ESDC chose not complete the process outlined by President Lago, and instead replaced the community informational meeting with a “public information session” outside the period of the public review for the modifications to the general project plan. It had a narrowed agenda with a focus only on the architecture of the arena. The prospect that the agenda of the second information session would be narrowed was never raised until the announcement by the ESDC this past Friday, for a meeting scheduled Monday. As a result of this change, members of our community were unable to follow up on what many believe were the ESDC’s insufficient answers on critical topics such as the timetable and feasibility of the project’s mitigations and benefits.

The ESDC also made a short and ineffective effort to inform the community the meeting was taking place. Although the ESDC had two months to schedule the meeting, preliminary notice occurred four business days before the meeting took place and formal notice occurred one business day before the meeting in the form of a press release. It is unclear what notice was provided to the community, when, and to whom. In addition, another party facilitated the meeting, and it is reported that they were given notice they were facilitating it on behalf of the ESDC at an extremely late date. As a result, they did not have the operational capability to facilitate a meeting that is part of a government process, (for example the RSVP link in the ESDC press release led to a page labeled “page not found” until the morning of the meeting). That other party, the American Institute of Architects, has stated it only gave notice to its members who are architects, and that in their view this meeting was “on architecture.”

The ESDC did not fulfill the process outlined to the public and the ESDC board at the June 23rd meeting. As a result, the community has been placed in the difficult position of providing comment on a project without sufficient information. Given the tremendous impact of the Atlantic Yards plan and implementation on our community it is essential the community trust the oversight of the project. Given the willingness of the ESDC to not fulfill its own promised commitments in relation to the review period, it is apparent it is not essential to the ESDC that we trust them.

Sincerely Yours,
Peter Krashes
For the Board of the Dean Street Block Association, 6th Avenue to Vanderbilt

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