Thursday, February 25, 2010

At meeting on street closings, information (Forest City's planned major ramp-up) and evasions; tension but little conflict; questions left unanswered

Some significant information--and evasion--emerged during last night's meeting on street closings and transportation changes for Atlantic Yards, sponsored by three City Council Members and held at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene.

It drew more than 120 people, well more than half project supporters, as well as opponents, local elected officials (and their staff members), and representatives and officials of the three local community boards. (Planned for closing are Fifth Avenue between Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, and Pacific Street between Flatbush and Sixth avenues and Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues.)

For example, officials announced tweaks in the traffic plan and claimed political resistance has caused a delay in formation of a Transportation Working Group, which was first announced in May 2007.

Forest City Ratner (FCR) executive Jane Marshall (pictured, with three City Council Members at right) gave evasive answers about the delays in the reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge (now tied to a previously-unannounced four-phase plan for railyard construction), the cost of a lease for the streets (city taxpayers lose $3.7 million), and the reason VMS (variable message signs) announcing street closings were left on for more than two days even after the closings were delayed.

Marshall indicated that, once a ruling approving condemnation of streets and other property emerges, the developer plans a huge increase in activity at the Atlantic Yards site, fostering construction of the arena. (That ruling was initially expected January 29, but was put on hold by a judge after property owners mounted an unusual opposition.)

While Marshall said such a ramp-up could begin in 24 hours, no one could promise how much advance notice would the community get about street closings, which were put on hold last month, and presumably are a significant part of the construction plans. (Council Member--and project opponent--Letitia James recommended two weeks.)

(Photos and set by Tracy Collins; videos shot by Jonathan Barkey.)

What didn't happen

But the meeting was notable for what didn't happen as much as what did. Despite the presence of project supporters, many members of Community Benefits Agreement signatory BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development), the meeting was mostly peaceful. (One audience member told me that she overheard people in the row behind her saying they'd been paid to attend. Marshall, queried later, flatly denied it.)

Even though the meeting, billed as lasting two hours, started 20 minutes late, it ended more than 20 minutes early, allegedly because they were out of questions.

But project critics/opponents--including members of the Dean Street Block Association and Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods--told me that numerous written questions were submitted that never made it to the dais, as they were vetted by a trio representing Forest City Ratner, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), and James's office.

(In photo, James reads through some of the question cards, as they are vetted in the background.)

That trio was supposed to eliminate off-topic questions regarding broader project issues--James, actually, took the opportunity to ask some off-topic questions of her own. However, some unanswered questions submitted by the Dean Street Block Association (and myself) were on-topic.

Some tension

Given that James and fellow Council Member Brad Lander are public opponents of the project--Lander, a longtime critic, emerged as an opponent last year--the meeting began with a bit of tension.

James cited the importance of transparency, openness, accountability, and public engagement. She said she hoped some further structure would emerge for further public involvement in the plans.

Lander (speaking) reminded the audience that, while they have a broader set of interests, the meeting was limited to the issues of street closings and traffic changes. Council Member Steve Levin (behind Lander), on the fence regarding the project, merely suggested the importance of dialogue.

Presentations begin: DOT

When the bureaucratic presentations began, the event very much resembled two previous meetings on street closings, one before the Transportation Committee of Community Board 6 and the other before the 78th Precinct Community Council, only with an extra layer of tension in the room, given the larger crowd and proximity to the site.

Chris Hrones, the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Downtown Brooklyn Transportation Coordinator, explained the respective roles of the parties: DOT, FCR, and the "Economic State Development Corporation"--actually, the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC).

Atlantic Yards, he noted, is being executed by ESDC and FCR, with the full cooperation of the city. DOT must review and approve the mitigations to ease traffic, he said, though DOT does not have direct control over street closures, which were approved by ESDC (and can override the city).

"We're willing to make changes if they make sense," he said, pointing to one example that recently emerged. At one point, Carlton Avenue was supposed to offer two-way traffic between Dean and Pacific streets. The Community Board 8 Transportation Committee suggested it remain one-way in the interest of pedestrian safety, with Pacific Street between Carlton and Sixth avenues made one-way as well. (It also will retain parking spots.)

"We thought that was a good idea, and asked Forest City Ratner to incorporate it into the plan," Hrones said. As he's said before, the changes are not set in stone, and the impact will be evaluated.

(Standing behind Hrones are Forest City Ratner executive Scott Cantone, left, and Council Member Levin.)

FCR: update

Marshall explained the process leading up to the meeting, beginning with the master closing held in December, and the move to condemnation. FCR, she said, sent out a notice in early January regarding street closures "on or about February 1," because the condemnation was expected to vest on January 29.

"But the judge has not acted yet," she said, " so we are in a little bit of a state of limbo."

"We do expect the closings to be imminent, however," she said. (Everyone's waiting for Justice Abraham Gerges to rule; he said he would move promptly.)

Traffic consultants

FCR consultant "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz of Sam Schwartz Engineering, explained the five elements of the plan: roadway closures, directional changes, mitigation measures, parking changes, and a bus route modification.

Given the anticipated closing of Fifth Avenue--which is already closed to southbound traffic--Sixth Avenue will now allow for northbound movement, he said.

He said FCR had set up 13 VMS signs, which are a DOT requirement. "Those signs have been turned off for the moment," he said.

He cited changes in the timing of traffic lights, and his colleague Dan Schack described changes in lane markings to make it easier to turn on and off Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.

As for parking regulation changes, the biggest change involves no standing at any time along the west side of Sixth Avenue, a block now mainly used as police parking.

A document describing the traffic changes had already been distributed to local officials, community boards, the DOT, and ESDC. (Update: The updated plan is at bottom.)

Lander: constraints on the meeting

The three Council Members took turns reading the written questions, but before that began, Lander said he wanted "to speak with a little more candor about the reason for the constraints on the discussion." As an opponent, he said he had a lot of questions about the project, but the elected officials felt a responsibility to address the street closings.



"Forest City Ratner made it quite clear they'd come to a discussion about street closings, but not about the broader set of issues," he said. So the elected officials will continue to push for further dialogue.

Perpetual gridlock?

Since Fifth Avenue was made one-way, traffic on Sixth Avenue has been backed up, one questioner pointed out, asking if perpetual gridlock was expected when Pacific Street closed.



"I do not expect perpetual gridlock, and my name is 'Gridlock Sam,'" Schwartz responded. He cited the closing of northbound access on Fourth Avenue above Atlantic Avenue, which did not result in gridlock, even though there was a higher traffic volume than expected in the case of AY changes.

Similarly, he said that traffic changes around Times Square, another place of higher volume, have not resulted in gridlock. (The theory is that traffic is fluid, and drivers adjust.) "So I do not believe we will have gridlock in this area. I absolutely believe there will be turbulence and confusion the first few days this goes in."

Safety issues

Given the killing of a Flatbush Avenue pedestrian by an apparently speeding car, street safety is on people's minds. What's the safety plan for pedestrians?



Schwartz said "safety is paramount" and added that, for the first time regarding a Brooklyn project, Forest City Ratner has hired a pedestrian managers, including a retired police officer who works for his firm. Everything the firm does, he said, is consistent with city safety standards.

Later, a resident asked why the Fire Department wasn't present, given concerns about response from a firehouse on Dean Street just east of Sixth Avenue, which can no longer use the Carlton Avenue Bridge.

Levin said he took responsibility for not reaching out to the department. Marshall said, "We consulted the fire department, they're aware of everything we're doing. They do not believe it's going to have an impact on them. We also consult with the police on a daily basis. Life and safety is paramount for everybody... We realize it's our responsibility to coordinate with them."

"We also have, looking over our shoulders, in a very, very profound way, the Empire State Development Development Corporation, which has consultants, that are looking into Forest City's meeting their project requirements, on the environmental level and also on the safety and construction buildup."

Carlton Avenue Bridge

What are the plans for the reopening of the Carlton Avenue Bridge? (It was originally supposed to close for nine ten months, and then for two years. Now the timetable looks like four years, even though that was not revealed in the environmental review.)



"The Carlton Avenue Bridge is a bit of a conundrum, so it's hard for people to understand it," Marshall replied. "because it spans the Long Island [Rail Road] railyard, and the Long Island railyard is a storage yard, so it has the trains in it. The tracks are being reconfigured, with a new design and the bridge columns have to be built in sequence with the redevelopment of the yard. So the yard is being done in four phases. The Carlton Avenue Bridge is required to be open when the arena opens. It will be built with the third phase of the yard. So we expect it to open in 2012, with the arena, and we would do it as fast as we can, but unfortunately, it's not just building a bridge, it's building a yard."

In a 9/23/08 email from Forest City Assistant VP Kate Bicknell to mayoral advisor Nnenna Lynch, a three-stage process, not a four-phase one, was contemplated:
The bridge is being demolished and reconstructed in three stages, which correspond to stages 1 (temporary yard), 2 & 3 (permanent yard) of the LIRR yard construction. As you know, we are currently constructing the temp yard (stage 1), which includes the demolition of the southern half of the bridge. The demolition of the northern half of the bridge as well as the full reconstruction of the bridge are part of stages 2 and 3 (permanent yard) of the LIRR yard construction, which will begin after LIRR's sign-off of permanent yard construction drawings. We are nearing completion of the temp yard and the demolition of the southern half of the bridge....
However, in Chapter 17, Construction Impacts, of the FEIS prepared by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), there was no reference to such phasing. Rather, the bridge was presumed to be fully demolished and reconstructed within two years, during the construction of the temporary yard.

Timing of street closings

Several questions regarded the timing of when exactly streets would close, and what kind of notice there would be.



Marshall said FCR had expected that that the judge "would sign the order pretty quickly. It's taken a little longer than we expected, but we expect it very soon."

Later, Lander asked for some more clarity regarding the sequence of the issue.

Marshall said it could be imminent. She noted that the procedures emerged from issues raised in the Final Environmental Impact Statement and later were developed by Schwartz's firm, with DOT's consultation.

But, Lander pressed on, how long would the time period be between vesting and closing of streets?

"Ultimately, when that happens, ESDC has the right to close the streets at any time," Hrones said. "We would obviously encourage ESDC and FCR, as they've been doing up to this point, to provide reasonable notice." But there's no specific guideline

If they asked him, Lander continued, what's reasonable notice?

Hrones demurred, saying DOT hadn't discussed it.

James said, "Before the decision is made, I would hope that elected officials would be consulted. My definition of reasonable notice is at least a two-week window."

Ramping up construction

Why not postpone closing Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues until Phase 2 of the development--not destined for many years--is under way?



"As you know, Atlantic Yards is a rather ambitious project," Marshall responded. "The fact of the matter is, in the first phase of the development… all but three blocks are under construction. In the planning of the project, we spent extensive time developing this plan. We analyzed where could the construction staging would happen... There is no way for us to build just in the yard. We have to build from Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt."

"Block 1129"--the southeast block of the site, between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Dean and Pacific streets--"is really the only place where there is dirt, where we can stage materials, have construction offices, stage trucks," she said.

"The entire FEIS is based on using the bed of Pacific Street and 1129 as construction staging. As soon as we get the order from the judge signed, which we think will be soon, we are going to ramp up extremely quickly on the arena and on the yard, and probably on B2, which is the first residential building. So there is going to be a substantial number of workers, trucks, materials, letdown, and leaving that street open to traffic would be unsafe, and ill-advised."

She was later asked to clarify that.

"What I mean is, when we get the sites and the land and be able to start construction of the arena, ramp up means immediately we will be out there on the site starting work," she said. "We have already completed most of the utilities around the site in order to allow excavation to start."

"We will be having vehicles and offices set up immediately. As we've stated publicly, we intend to begin design of the first residential building in such a way that it can break ground in the fourth quarter of this year. So you're going to have construction of the railyard, the arena, and residential building, all going on… in the next nine months... and that is why we can't keep Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt open."

What about the VMS?

After Gerges put the condemnation on hold on January 29, the Variable Message Signs (set up by FCR) indicating February 1 street closings were left on all weekend, including through part of the morning of Monday, February 1, leading to significant confusion. Why?



Marshall's answer was a non sequitur: "Again, I think that we expected that the judge would sign the order relatively quickly. And so those Variable Message Signs are important to let people know, drivers know, what's going to happen in their future. So we kept them on, because we were trying to inform the public, that's all."

Instead, they confused the public.

Eminent domain issues

Despite the stated ground rules, James went afield, pursuing a question regarding what would happen to the remaining residents of Pacific Street.



People still living on the site would be permitted access to the streets, Marshall said. "Life would sort of go on but there will signs posted that say 'Private street, no public traffic flow.'"

She gave an outline of the settlement process in condemnation court. "Tenants of the buildings get relocated, through relocation services provided by ESDC," she said, referring to a small payment and services of a real estate agent. (Some have or will get cash settlements from Forest City, as well, and some have been promised apartments in the project.)

Marshall said it wouldn't take too long, but wasn't sure exactly. She left out property owners who live in the footprint, but also cited businesses, which get both a price and an appraisal of fixtures.

"That's all done through a court in the eminent domain process, and Forest City has no role in it," she said.

(Actually, a document known as a Land Acquisition Funding, Property Management and Relocation Agreement--about which I haven't yet written--describes how the ESDC must consult with Forest City Ratner, which ultimately funds the settlements.)

Who owns the streets? What does FCR save?

Who owns the streets and what will change once ownership is vested?



Marshall responded briefly: "The ESDC will own the streets and they will, under a lease, transferred to Forest City for the development of the arena and the rest of the project."

The New York City Independent Budget Office, in its September 2009 Fiscal Brief regarding the arena, explained that it would cost the city nearly $4 million:
The city will provide some property for the project at no cost. According to the latest modified project plan, this will include the street bed of Fifth Avenue between Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues and the street bed of Pacific Street between Flatbush and Sixth Avenues, as well as a small traffic triangle at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Pacific street. Based on recent sales prices in the area, IBO estimates that the 2010 sales value of this property is $3.7 million.

Not selling this land at a market price to another developer or to FCRC adds to the opportunity cost of the project. In the portion of the project east of Sixth Avenue— which is outside of the arena footprint—FCRC is committed to paying a market price for the street bed of Pacific street between Sixth and Vanderbilt Avenues.
Transportation working group?

A transportation working group was announced by ESDC in 2007, but has it met, and has it reviewed the plans? James said she knew of no such group. A member of the audience referenced the announcement.



The question got a response from project Ombudsman Forrest Taylor, the only ESDC official to go to the podium. (Several other ESDC officials were in the audience.)

"It's envisioned that Transportation Working Group would be a committee of the Community Advisory Committee," Taylor said, referring to an organization that most elected officials have boycotted as toothless, instead supporting a more robust form of oversight, such as a local development corporation or authority, such as the Battery Park City Authority.

That may be the vision now, but it was not explained when the working group was announced in May 2007. The ESDC said:
Concerns regarding transportation impacts, during and after construction, have been consistently mentioned by community and elected leaders. ESDC will organize a small working group of city and state agencies, community representatives and local elected officials to discuss anticipated issues and available mitigation opportunities.
In January 2008, Taylor said the working group would be “a subcommittee of a newly-reconstituted Community Advisory Committee.”

Last night, he continued, "So until we decide which direction we want to go in--a number of elected officials have pressed us in terms of different ways to give oversight to the project, Tish James being one of them, [Assemblyman] Hakeem Jeffries being another. So, internally, we're trying to decide the best way to provide community input and oversight for the project. We expect to conclude those discussions internally within the next couple of weeks."

Other questions

Will trucks be making deliveries at night?

Trucks will be required to follow truck rules and regulations, Schwartz said. (Which means? I'll check.)

What bus route is affected?

Just the B63 northbound, which would turn from Fifth Avenue onto Flatbush, rather than on Atlantic.

Can the street closings go forward without eminent domain?

No.

Would road closings be reversed if eminent domain occurs but the project dies?

Yes, though that's not anticipated, Hrones said.

How will people travel from Fort Greene to Park Slope?

Those going south from Fort Greene can use Sixth Avenue southbound, Schwartz said, adding that Vanderbilt and Underhill avenues were alternate routes.

Unanswered questions

Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association (DSBA), which has sent written questions to the DOT, shared with me a list of questions submitted.

Only a few were arguably off-topic, but most were not answered. They were:
Surface Parking and Interim Open Space

1) Jane Marshall: When are you going to release the interim plans for the second phase footprint? What architecture firm/planner is drawing up the plans?

2) Jane Marshall: Please chart across the construction timetable of the first phase of the project, the number and programming of the surface parking places you are going to create.

3) Jane Marshall: Will you be creating open space on the interim second phase footprint? What things are you going to be looking at to define when it is possible?

4) Jane Marshall: What standard are you using for each unit size in the surface parking lots?

5) Marshall, Schwartz: Has FCRC approached the 78th Precinct with an incentive program to use transit? For the NYPD to use transit would have additional benefits for the public because off-duty officers would raise safety levels on the LIRR trains and subways they choose to ride.

6) Marshall, Schwartz, DOT: Have you ruled out every possible option to locate NYPD parking elsewhere: HPD parking lots, other areas of footprint, Atlantic Center mall? Have you considered using parking management strategies to increase the productivity of the surface spaces that already exist in the area?

7) Marshall: When are you planning to complete the agreement with the 3rd party for the surface parking? If it is already complete, who is the operator of the surface parking going to be?

8) Marshall, DOT: Do the NYC DCP zoning regulations for surface parking areas announced in 2007 apply to the interim lots at Atlantic Yards?

Pacific Street and Carlton Avenue Bridge

9) Why isn’t Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt remaining a public street? What plans does FCRC have for it during the project’s first phase?

10) DOT, Marshall: The LIRR has announced the temporary railyard is complete and it is in full operation. Why hasn’t the rebuilding of the Carlton Avenue Bridge started already?

Construction Plan

11) Marshall: It was stated construction staging for the arena could not be placed in the first phase footprint because the residential buildings and the arena were being built as one piece. That is no longer true. Is the construction plan taking advantage of that fact?

Oversight

12) DOT AND ESDC: In May of 2007, the ESDC announced creation of a transportation working group to included City and State agencies, elected officials and community representatives. How often has this group met since then, and has it reviewed the proposed street closings?

-If the transportation working group has met, what is its governance structure, who are its members, and what protocol is in place for creating, reviewing and implementing plans? Were those protocols followed for these street closures?

-If the transportation working group has not met, what alternative protocol is in place and what document has authorized this alternative?

13) DOT: Specifically what traffic related issues does DOT anticipate in the future will trigger a public process? Locations of curb cuts? Lane changes? Signal changes? Creation of surface parking? Locations of construction staging areas and construction truck routes?

14) Does DOT have any influence over the scale or programming of the surface parking?
DSBA handout

The DSBA also said in a handout:
We believe implementation of street closures are premature given the status of the Atlantic Yards development; even so, on their merits and assuming the project moves forward, these plans would be improved with the interests and knowledge of our community taken into account.

1) NYC DOT should put in place a meaningful period and process for public review and comment on all future transportation changes in relation to Atlantic Yards prior to their approval by DOT.

2) The interim plans of the second phase footprint should be released in full, including the number and programming of surface parking units and the amount of interim open space that will be created.

3) The community does not want to subsidize parking. Steps should be taken to avoid the adverse affects caused by the creation of new off-street surface parking for the 78th Precinct within the second phase footprint when there is a risk development at those sites will be delayed or not completed.

4) The incentive to drive to the footprint should be reduced with programs that create incentives to ride transit given the project’s transit-rich location.

5) Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt should remain a public street and stay open for vehicles and parking.

6) Reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge should begin now.

7) As Brooklyn Borough DOT has endorsed, Carlton Avenue should remain as it is currently and Pacific Street should be turned into a one-way west-bound.
Items 5 and 6 were essentially nixed, but item 7 got a yes.

Draft Mitigation Plan Fifth Ave-Pacific St Closures 022410 (2)

1 comment:

  1. Marshall said: "... we intend to begin design of the first residential building in such a way that it can break ground in the fourth quarter of this year."

    There is not yet even a design for the residential building. Here is clear evidence that, other than the arena, nobody is able to say what the Atlantic Yards project is.

    ReplyDelete