Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Who's in charge? Untangling the street closing mystery and the government's long leash for Forest City Ratner

Forest City Ratner waited well over two days to change digital signs warning that Fifth Avenue between Atlantic and Flatbush avenues would close on February 1--despite a judge's decision last Friday to defer any decision on transferring title to properties and streets in the Atlantic Yards footprint to the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC).

So a lot of people walking and driving this weekend had a right to be confused when the street turned out to be open this morning.

(Photo looking north on Fifth Avenue below Flatbush Avenue, by Tracy Collins.)

Who's in charge?

And no one really knew who was in charge.

Was it the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT)? Not really, even though FCR said it would have to ask for DOT permission to close the streets without a judicial order. After all, I couldn't even get an on-the-record statement out of DOT.

Was it the ESDC? Maybe, given that an ESDC attorney said in court that no request for street closure would be made until title had been vested. But I couldn't get any further statement from the ESDC last Friday.

Was it the developer? Well, it appears that FCR has a pretty long leash, if it can place signs on streets and sidewalks and decide when the message gets changed.

And remember, Bruce Ratner told Crain's last November in another context, regarding project designs, “Why should people get to see plans? This isn't a public project."

Public-private partnerships

The entire episode illustrates the precariousness and difficulty of public-private partnerships.

On Thursday, speaking about such in a different context, Christopher Ward, executive director of the Port Authority of NY/NJ, said, "I think we're going to have to in some ways find the notion of a public-private partnership and actually make it real. Right now, public-private partnerships, to my mind, are like cold fusion in Utah."

(He referred to an episode in which scientists claimed far more results than they achieved.)

"There is an inherent opportunity in using other people's money, large equity funds, to help fund projects. It has to be a public and private shared risk," Ward said, speaking at January 28 Milano School panel on reviving the city's economy through infrastructure. "It's not the lack of money, it's not the lack of financial capacity, it's the notion of risk: who's bearing it, who's willing to pay it, and should it be the region at large, and the public, or should it be shifted back onto the private sector?"

While Ward was talking about funding for infrastructure, his basic point was that a balance is required. And, as the street closing episode showed, the balance needs some work.

Shared risk and responsibility

The episode bolsters the argument, made by BrooklynSpeaks and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, that a governance structure is needed to oversee the project.

And the confusion also suggests the need for better communication, a dynamic forum in which people can pose public questions and get public answers. Perhaps an ESDC Ombudsman's blog or a Forest City Ratner Community Liaison Office blog is in order.

Whimsical approach


Forest City Ratner Senior VP Jane Marshall, speaking at a January 21 Community Board 6 Transportation Committee meeting, exhibited a rather whimsical attitude when I asked what might happen if title didn't pass at the January 29 hearing.



"We have discussed with DOT the ability to ask for them to be closed in any case, but they'd have to grant that," said Marshall, who added that the developer was hoping and planning for the streets to be closed February 1.

If FCR had to ask DOT, how would that work?

"I don't know," Marshall responded. "I ask, they say yes, I don't know."

Well, it turned out that title didn't pass and FCR--perhaps stymied by the ESDC's public statement in court--didn't ask DOT.

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