Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who's in charge of AY at the ESDC? A team, but there's no point person (any more); FOIL request regarding mystery volunteer still pending

Who's in charge of the Atlantic Yards project at the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC)?

Is there an in-house project manager, a point person, similar in function to the way, for example, Regina Myer serves as president of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation? Is there a board with oversight responsibilities and a process for seeking local input?

Nope. For a while, though, depending on whom you talk to, the ESDC had a volunteer in charge.

ESDC response

I asked the "who's in charge" question to the ESDC, and got the following response from spokeswoman Elizabeth Mitchell:
The Atlantic Yards project, like most of the projects large and small here at ESDC, does not have a specific project manager.

The project utilizes a team of professionals in our legal, planning, environmental, and design & construction groups to monitor various aspects of the project as appropriate. In addition, we’ve contracted with various independent contractors to act as owner’s representatives and environmental monitors working on our behalf.

As major project construction is set to begin shortly, this structure might take on some changes, but has been sufficient thus far to monitor site activities.
While the structure may be sufficient to "monitor site activities," that describes only part of the ESDC's role, which includes negotiating contracts at "arm's length."

The result of the relative vacuum? Developer Forest City Ratner gains an advantage.

The argument for a governance structure

Meanwhile, critics like the BrooklynSpeaks coalition and several legislators support a governance structure that would involve a local development corporation, subsidiary or public benefit corporation that also incorporates a formal advisory board made up of local representatives.

Why? As BrooklynSpeaks argues:
in June 2009, ESDC made crucial determinations about the environmental impact of the project without having the new arena proposal, but merely relied on the developer's assertion that future changes would comply with the previous project's design guidelines. The [Modified General Project Plan] further allows the developer to control the project build out schedule without any remedies for delays beyond the proposed 2019 end date. ESDC's abrogation of these basic oversight responsibilities is unacceptable for a project that is receiving exceptional direct and indirect subsidies, zoning overrides, and has won the ability to acquire property through the State's power of eminent domain.
Looking more closely

Let's go to the ESDC page listing subsidiaries and major development projects. Each of the ESDC's subsidiaries has a president and a board, who offer a greater potential accountability:
What about the major development projects?
The only project that is somewhat comparable is the Columbia Manhattanville Project, which has been less exclusively an ESDC project because, unlike Atlantic Yards, it went through the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP)

Belmont Park was just a study; the City-by-City Projects are clearly much smaller than AY; Midtown Rising has a project leader from the city of Rochester; and Radisson Community has a development office and a community association.

Hudson Yards Development Corporation

One potential parallel involves the another railyards project, albeit a much larger one:
Established by the City of New York in 2005, the Hudson Yards Development Corporation (HYDC) spearheads the implementation of the City’s Hudson Yards development program. HYDC has an experienced staff comprised of planning, development and construction professionals.
The HYDC Board is comprised of 13 directors, all of whom serve on an ex officio basis. The City's Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding serves as Board Chairperson. Also on the board the City Councilmember for District 3, the Manhattan Borough President, and the Chair, Manhattan Community Board 4.

There's a staff of seven.

Who's the ESDC team?

Based on my observation at ESDC meetings and public events, the lead person for the ESDC is Senior Counsel Steve Matlin, who's made presentations at ESDC board meetings and at the community information session held last July.

Joining him at the session was Rachel Shatz, Director of Planning and Environmental Review, who has signed affidavits in court cases.

(From left, Darren Bloch, FCR's MaryAnne Gilmartin, Steve Matlin, Rachel Shatz, and Joe Petillo. Photo by Tracy Collins.)

Also playing a role are the three ESDC officials who testified--or, at least, were present--at the state Senate oversight hearing on eminent domain held last month by state Senator Bill Perkins. General Counsel Anita Laremont did the majority of the talking, joined by Executive VP of Strategy, Policy & Public Affairs Darren Bloch.

Executive Director Peter Davidson, who oversees the management of all statewide subsidiaries and large-scale urban development projects, joined the ESDC only last September and stayed prudently quiet.

Also, Senior Counsel Joe Petillo works on eminent domain issues. Forrest Taylor serves as a not-so-empowered ombudsman.

The Susan Rahm connection

Why is that question important? Well, as I wrote 6/2/09, there was evidence that suggested lawyer Susan Rahm, a volunteer, was running the show.

I had questioned whether Rahm was in a policy-making position, and was told by the ESDC that no, she was just a consultant.

Another person intersecting with Atlantic Yards disagreed. "When I was introduced to Susan Rahm, she was called the 'project manager' for Atlantic Yards," my correspondent told me. "Yeah, it’s a pretty general term, but I got the impression she was the chief operating official for the project, salary or no."

No response to a FOIL request

On 4/20/09, I filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request with the ESDC, asking in part:
Specifically I request records that explain 1) how Susan Rahm's role and responsibility was introduced to ESDC colleagues when she joined ESDC as a volunteer in 2007 and 2) direct contacts by Rahm and/or Darren Bloch from 2007-present with Forest City Ratner executives regarding such issues as the timing, financing, legal status and scope of the Atlantic Yards project.

If that latter request is too broad, please narrow it to communications, including those regarding the State Funding Agreement signed in September 2007, between June 2007 and January 2008.
Every month, I get a response from the ESDC's FOIL officer, telling me they're still working on my request. It's been nearly ten months now.

Questions asked and not

At the 5/29/09 oversight hearing, I called Rahm (below) the "most ignored mystery woman," suggesting that someday some oversight committee will ask what she does on the Atlantic Yards project. (Photo by Jonathan Barkey)

At the 7/30/09 public hearing on Atlantic Yards, Fort Greene resident Audrey Doyle raised a question that most likely had been planted by others in the opposition: “Who is Susan Rahm, what is her position in ESDC, and what is her connection with the Atlantic Yards project?… We really wonder what it is that she does.”

That question never got an answer, though Rahm later last year left her consultant's role.

No comments:

Post a Comment