Monday, March 01, 2010

Untangling the "conundrum" of Carlton Avenue Bridge; crucial delays were (likely) caused by FCR's cheaper redesign of the permanent Vanderbilt Yard

How did the closure of the Carlton Avenue Bridge--a key thoroughfare between Prospect Heights and Fort Greene--turn from a two-year project to a stalled venture lasting more than four years, scheduled for reconstruction only in time for the opening of the Atlantic Yards arena?

Forest City Ratner (FCR) executive Jane Marshall last week called it "a conundrum," blaming the delay on the complexity of reconstructing a bridge that straddles the Vanderbilt Yard, a key element of the Atlantic Yards project.

But that explanation, as well as further elaboration by the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), doesn't add up.

Notably, the bridge was originally supposed to reopen by the time a temporary railyard was completed--and the latter has been accomplished.

Also, unmentioned in the explanations, a key factor in the delay was likely Forest City Ratner's effort last year--well after the demolition process had begun--to renegotiate plans for a smaller and less costly permanent railyard.

In fact, it's possible that we won't see further action on the bridge until June 2011, the date "Improved Yard construction documents" are due to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The arena might open a year later, which means the bridge might be closed for four-and-a-half years.

(Photos and set by Tracy Collins)

Below I backtrack though known information about the closure and explain why I believe the renegotiated MTA deal was key.

Draft EIS, July 2006

In the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) issued in July 2006, the project was supposed to take about ten months, according to Chapter 17, Construction:
Reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge would take place from late 2006 through mid-2007 over about a 10-month period. As the Carlton Avenue Bridge is being reconstructed, new utilities along Atlantic Avenue would be installed. The reconstruction of the 6th Avenue Bridge and the construction of the West Portal would take place from about 3rd quarter 2007 through 4th quarter 2008.
The elapsed time for both was about two years. That same chapter stated that the Carlton Avenue Bridge would reopen before the temporary railyard was finished:
The first step in the reconstruction of the Vanderbilt Yard would be to build a temporary yard in Blocks 1120 and 1121. Existing tracks and other structures in the area of the temporary yard would be removed. Then a temporary trestle from the main line would be built to allow train access. The Carlton Avenue Bridge and its foundations would be demolished and rebuilt.... Once the temporary yard is operational in the southern half of Blocks 1120 and 1121, the tracks in the old yard would be removed.
Final EIS, November 2006

According to the Construction chapter of the Final Environmental Impact Statement issued in November 2006, the timetable then became two years:
Aside from the reductions associated with the modified building program since the issuance of the DEIS, construction phasing and activity projections were updated to reflect the shifting of certain construction tasks, including the reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge. The Carlton Avenue Bridge effort, which was scheduled to be completed within the first 12 months of construction in the DEIS, would likely take two years to facilitate LIRR Vanderbilt Yard reconstruction.
... Reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge would take place from late 2006 through the end of 2008. As the Carlton Avenue Bridge is being reconstructed, new utilities along Atlantic Avenue would be installed. The reconstruction of the 6th Avenue Bridge and the construction of the West Portal would take place from about 4th quarter 2008 through 4th quarter 2009. At no time would the 6th Avenue and Carlton Avenue Bridges be closed at the same time.
Again, it stated that the Carlton Avenue Bridge would be reconstructed before the temporary railyard went into operation:
The first step in the reconstruction of the Vanderbilt Yard would be to build a temporary yard in Blocks 1120 and 1121. Existing tracks and other structures in the area of the temporary yard would be removed. Then a temporary trestle from the main line would be built to allow train access. The Carlton Avenue Bridge and its foundations would be demolished and rebuilt. Some temporary electrical switchgear and other operating equipment would be installed. A temporary ramp along the north edge of Pacific Street would be constructed to allow access. Finally, the new temporary tracks would be installed, and the existing yard closed. This phase of the work is expected to take about two years.
Construction schedule

A construction schedule attached to the DEIS and FEIS indicated that the railyard reconstruction would be a three-stage process. (Click to enlarge.)

Note that the full schedule, dated 7/10/06, was not updated to account for the two years expected to reconstruct the Carlton Avenue Bridge.

Bridge closes, January 2008

The bridge closed in January 2008, with the stated goal of reopening it in two years.

An ESDC Memorandum of Law (p. 11-12, PDF) filed 1/25/08 in the case challenging the Atlantic Yards environmental review, twice cited the "two-year closure" and asserted that, in the environmental review, the ESDC had carefully considered the impact of the two-year closure on traffic and fire department response times.

The missing link: the redesign delay

While litigation and the economic crunch surely were factors in the delay, I now believe that the key factor was the redesign of the permanent railyard.

A 9/23/08 email from Forest City Assistant VP Kate Bicknell to mayoral advisor Nnenna Lynch provides some hints:
The bridge is being demolished and reconstructed in three stages, which correspond to stages 1 (temporary yard), 2 & 3 (permanent yard) of the LIRR [Long Island Rail Road] 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.
(Emphases added)

I didn't see the email until August 2009. Nor did I at that time connect the timing implied with the schedule for permanent yard construction documents, which, as noted below, aren't due until June 2011.

A shift in plans for the bridge

Note that, in Bicknell's message, construction of the temporary yard became contemporaneous only with the "demolition of the southern half of the bridge," rather than the entire bridge reconstruction project, as in the FEIS.

Also note that, as disclosed in the FEIS, a three-stage process for the new railyard was contemplated; however, the Carlton Avenue Bridge reconstruction was no longer part of the first stage.

Switching gears for railyard renegotiation

The second and third stages of the new railyard were to depend on the LIRR's sign-off on permanent yard construction drawings. Whether Bicknell knew it at the time, that wasn't about to happen soon.

Why? Because Forest City Ratner--either at that time or not long after--decided to go back to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR's parent, with a revised plan that included a much smaller down payment and a smaller permanent railyard.

Work stalled, December 2008

In December 2008, I pointed out that railyard work had stalled and questioned the developer's claim that it had been caused by litigation. I described the difficulty in getting answers.

Shortly afterward, I reminded people of sworn affidavits by FCR executives who promised that work would continue during litigation, claiming that the developer's "construction schedule has been carefully drawn... by commencing work now on vacant properties that are owned by FCRC, the MTA and the City...."

Later that month, an unnamed Empire State Development Corporation spokesman told the Courier-Life's Stephen Witt, "Forest City Ratner has told us there are no changes in the schedule at this time" to reconstruct and reopen the half-demolished Carlton Avenue bridge. (Emphasis added)

Looking back, "at this time" may well have referred to the fact that plans for the revised railyard had not been reviewed by the MTA and LIRR.

Contract allows delay, January 2009

In January 2009, I reported that the contract for bridge work--which I obtained via a Freedom of Information Law request--gives Forest City Ratner three years before penalties kick in, and even longer in case of unavoidable delays.

(That includes delays in the Master Closing, which didn't occur until December 2009.)

Still, the DOT said--in retrospect, naively--that the work is "scheduled for completion January 2010."

DOT concerns, June 2009

At a meeting a half-year later called by the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), DOT officials reported that Forest City Ratner claimed the state eminent domain case prevented bridge work from moving forward.

CBN co-chair Candace Carponter pointed out, however, that, when the demolition began in early 2008, eminent domain litigation had already been filed in federal court. (It was coordinated by Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, for which she is legal chair.)

"If that's preventing them now," Carponter said, "it should've been preventing them from taking it down in the first place" and inconveniencing people with a half-demolished bridge.

New railyard deal, June 2009

An MTA staff summary (in full, at bottom) of the revised terms for the Vanderbilt Yard deal set out a timetable:
FCR must follow design development procedures and requirements for completion of 100% Improved Yard construction documents by June 2011 (with interim milestones at 30%, 60%, and 90%).
That implies a further stall regarding the Carlton Avenue Bridge.

If the developer uses all the allotted time, demolition of the northern half of the bridge and full reconstruction won't begin until after those construction documents are approved in June 2011.

New Design Criteria, June 2009

General Design Criteria for a New Vanderbilt Rail Yard approved by the MTA on 6/22/09 (see next to last page of this exhibit in the lawsuit challenging the MTA deal) gave no specific deadline:
FCR will coordinate the reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge with the LIRR and its operations prior to commencement of bridge work.
ESDC Technical Memorandum, June 2009

A 6/23/09 Technical Memorandum from the ESDC, issued along with the Modified General Project Plan (MGPP), updated Carlton Avenue Bridge information not with a precise schedule but rather an outside completion date:
Under the revised schedule, completion of the arena construction would occur in the first quarter of 2012, and the reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge would be completed in time for the opening of the arena and would be compatible with LIRR rail yard operations and the new permanent yard, which is expected to be completed in 2013. Under this revised schedule, the improvements to the LIRR rail yard are anticipated to be completed in 2013. The last building on the arena block would be completed in the second quarter of 2014.
Similarly, the MGPP stated:
In all events, the Project Sponsors will also reconstruct the Carlton Avenue Bridge so as to be functional as of the opening date of the Arena.
There was no explanation why the bridge wasn't scheduled to open along with the temporary yard (which reached completion late last year).

Nor was there any statement that bridge work depended on the completion of permanent yard construction documents, which, as noted, aren't due until June 2011.

Changed DOT estimate, August 2009

In August 2009, after learning of Bicknell's email, I reported that the DOT had changed its estimate for completion of bridge work to January 2011.

In retrospect, that was naive on my part--and naive of the DOT.

Given the language of the Technical Memorandum and the MGPP, it's clear that the bridge reopening would be tied to the arena opening--and there was no way the arena would open in January 2011.

(Right now, June 2012 is a best-case scenario, if the construction takes 28 months, as Marshall has said. It's possible to speed things up, but also consider that the Nets, while planning to play in Newark for the next two seasons, have a reported two-year extension.)

ESDC evasion, September 2009

On 9/17/09, the day the revised project was finally approved by the ESDC, the Response to Comments document distributed at the ESDC was notable for non-responsive or evasive responses, as I wrote. That included comments about the bridge timetable.

Comment 31: What is the timetable for the completion of the Carlton Avenue Bridge? Is it part of Phase I or Phase II? While it is unclear how long those phases will take, it will be much longer than two years.

Response: The proposed MGPP does not change the schedule for the reopening of the Carlton Avenue Bridge, except that it does require that the bridge be open by the time the Arena is operational. As noted in the FEIS, the closure of the Carlton Avenue Bridge would need to be undertaken consistent with a New York City Department of Transportation-approved plan for the maintenance and protection of traffic, which is currently being implemented.

While the MGPP may not have changed the announced schedule, the timetable certainly changed, and the ESDC ignored the request for a timetable.

Changed DOT estimate, January 2010

In January 2010, I reported that work on the bridge would last at least April 2012, according to the DOT's latest estimate. At that time, that date was shortly before arena, if it proceeds on schedule, might have been able to open.

An April 2012 date would mean the bridge would have been closed for four years and four months, more than twice as long as originally promised during the environmental review. A June 2012 date would make it four years and six months. (Check the weekly traffic advisory for updates.)

FCR's latest explanation, February 2010

At a public meeting on street closings held on February 24, FCR executive Marshall offered a revised explanation.



"The Carlton Avenue Bridge is a bit of a conundrum, so it's hard for people to understand it," she said. "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."

(Emphasis added)

But it was always "building a yard." The key is likely the new design. What changed were the plans for the yard, as approved by the MTA.

This was the first time I'd heard of a four-phase process for the railyard, rather than a three-phase one, as disclosed in the FEIS.

ESDC clarification, February 2009

I asked the ESDC for clarification on the delay, including the fourth phase. ESDC spokeswoman Elizabeth Mitchell responded:
All parties involved with the Atlantic Yards Project acknowledge that – as with any project of this complexity and scope – additional details and unforeseen factors have come to light since the project’s inception that necessitate an adaptation of the original timeline. Even so, all changes have occurred within the context of the project’s design guidelines, the MGPP, the FEIS and the Tech Memo.

In this case, the requirement that the Carlton Avenue Bridge be reopened at the same time as the opening of the Barclays Center arena in 2012 affected the logistics planning for construction and construction staging of the arena, bridge, and rail yard. Under the current schedule, completion of the arena construction would occur in 2012, and the reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge would be completed in time for the opening of the arena and would be compatible with LIRR rail yard operations and the new permanent yard, which is expected to be completed in 2013.
(Emphases added)

Remaining questions


Late Thursday, I asked some follow-up questions, such as how the current schedule could be "within the context" of the FEIS, how the yard work became a four-phase project, and whether the elapsed time required to complete the bridge work changed. My request is pending.

Whatever the answers, however, I believe that the key factor was the redesign of the railyard--perhaps subsumed under "additional details" and "unforeseen factors."

Also note that Mitchell's statement inverts some of the sequence: while initially the bridge was supposed to be open before the temporary yard was completed, now the (implicitly onerous) requirement that the bridge be reopened at the same time as the arena has "affected the logistics planning for construction and construction staging of the arena, bridge, and rail yard."
Construction Schedule

MTAStaffSummary62209

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