At first, non-promoted AY cabinet meeting, Forest City Ratner brings staff and support, gets warm welcome, talks parking, construction
Well, the first meeting of the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet was held yesterday at Brooklyn Borough Hall, lasting about 70 minutes, going through issues like construction progress, parking, and traffic.
The hosts were the Brooklyn Borough President's Office and Council Member Letitia James, but it was really the Forest City Ratner show, with MaryAnne Gilmartin, the developer's Executive VP, and her colleagues doing most of the talking.
The cabinet will meet quarterly to discuss construction and other issues. About 40 people attended, most because they had to be there and, while some of them (notably James) brought questions, there was no opportunity for members of the public to pose questions on the spot, as is the protocol for a "working meeting.
It was a convivial event, with Empire State Development Corporation Project Manager Arana Hankin heaping praise on Forest City Ratner's cooperation. The only other ESDC staffer there was project ombudsman Forrest Taylor, and when James had a question about parking as reported in an ESDC document, it was answered by FCR's attorney. (As I wrote, the answer was wrong.)
Future CBA discussions?
The closest thing to contention came when Community Board 6 District Manager Craig Hammerman questioned why a future meeting would examine the Community Benefits Agreement, a private deal between Forest City Ratner and eight community groups, which excluded community boards.
James, an Atlantic Yards opponent, indicated that she felt a responsibility to represent constituents who had expressed concerns about CBA implementation, and Carlo Scissura, the Borough President's Chief of Staff, similarly said the CBA was something they had to deal with.
Dean Street blocked
Another moment of concern surfaced when James described how double- and triple-parking outside a church on Dean Street had blocked the Fire Department at one point; FCR said it was exploring offering temporary access to a project site parking lot on Sundays.
Little public notice
Why didn't you hear about the meeting beforehand? Because, while the meeting was not closed to the public--there is an open meetings law--it was not promoted to the public, nor were those invited encouraged to tell their constituency.
Thus neither elected officials nor community boards sent out notices. I heard about it secondhand. (See bottom for my somewhat tense exchange with Scissura and James.) No date has been set yet for the next meeting.
FCR brings backup
However, FCR, which brought at least nine staffers (one of whom brought her son for the experience) and at least four contracted professionals (p.r., law) who identified themselves as representing the developer, presented a substantial team.
That team was bolstered by representatives of the former ACORN, the developer's partner on affordable housing, and Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD), the developer's partner on job training, both of which have been financially supported by the developer and have provided ground-level support at public hearings and meetings.
Neighbors concerned, not satisfied
The group most worried about Atlantic Yards impacts was represented by exactly two people, members of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC). Still, a good deal of the discussion seemed geared to ensuring that such neighborhood concerns were met.
Peter Krashes, a Dean Street Block Association representative on the PHNDC, said afterward that the meeting was welcome but of limited usefulness. "I don't think it's a bad thing, but it's not a replacement for genuine oversight," said Krashes, who has joined those calling for a new oversight body for Atlantic Yards.
"Where was the ESDC staff?" he asked. "They weren't there answering questions about the project." Besides Hankin, whose contribution was a brief welcome, the only other staffer was project ombudsman Forrest Taylor, who didn't speak. No ESDC policy staffers or on-site consultants attended.
Scissura introduced the event by describing concerns expressed by Borough President Marty Markowitz and Council Member James regarding traffic and street closures, and said such a meeting was "an outstanding opportunity" for agencies to hear updates from FCR and ESDC and also to hear community concerns.
In the future, he said, if community members have questions, they should be sent to elected officials, community boards, the BP's office, FCR, or ESDC.
Who was there
Besides the FCR staffers, they also brought spokesman Joe DePlasco and two representatives of the p.r. firm Berlin Rosen, which presumably is working on the new web site Forest City Ratner promised, as well as attorney Melanie Meyers.
Most affected city and state agencies were there, though I didn't see reps from the police and fire departments--even though James raised a concern regarding the latter. Community Boards 2, 6, and 8 were represented by their District Managers, as well as CB 8 Chairperson Nizjoni Granville and CB 6 Transportation Committee Member Tom Miskel.
Elected officials who sent representatives included Rep. Yvette Clarke, Rep. Ed Towns, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, and state Senator Velmanette Montgomery. Not present--and I don't know if they were invited--were representatives of City Council Members Steve Levin and Brad Lander, as well as Assemblyman Jim Brennan and Assemblymember Joan Millman.
ESDC's Hankin offered a welcome, asserting the agency's "active oversight role" regarding "a multitude of agreements" that outline what has to be followed.
"We have a team on site every single day," she said, a reference not to staffers but mainly to consultants who visit regularly but are not permanently present.
"It's been great so far working with the community," she said, describing the outreach meetings she's had since she took the job two months ago. "Forest City Ratner has been quite responsive… to the complaints we've made thus far and I expect that relationship to continue."
The goal, she said, was "to create an atmosphere of positive dialogue ensuring we all can work together to minimize impacts that have been created by construction."
Markowitz visited briefly for a greeting.
"Where's Bertha?" he asked before he spoke, a reference to ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis, who, one day after the organization filed for bankruptcy owing $1 million to Forest City Ratner, clearly still has a happy relationship with the developer.
He stood up.
"Hi, Bertha," he uttered.
"Hi, Marty," she responded.
"Obviously, I know there are feelings here that run the gamut, but we're here for one purposes, and to make it work," Markowitz said. "That's it, that's the bottom line."
FCR's Gilmartin then provided an overview of the project, much like the one she gave at the September 29 meeting.
Arena and related site work is well underway, she said, with site excavation 75% and foundation work over 50% complete. Steel will start to go up next month. Demolition on the arena block is completed, with the final removal of debris on arena block should be completed this month.
The railyard work necessary to put the Carlton Avenue Bridge back in service by the 2012 arena opening will start next month. FCR has started work on new transit entrance, which is expected to open in summer 2012.
To address concerns about additional residential parking during construction, she said, FCR is looking at its Atlantic Terminal and 80 DeKalb properties as a potential resource for paid parking.
"We are strategizing now to construct a dynamic program for game and event days at the arena," she said. "We are working closely with Sam Schwartz Engineering to identify a number of ways to discourage driving and promote mass transit."
That transportation demand management plan involves High Occupancy Vehicle spaces, free roundtrip MetroCards, and a 400-bicycle storage facility. (The plan has been part of the mitigation strategies for the project since 2006, so it's hardly new, but Gilmartin's statement suggested it's undergoing revision.)
Given the complexity of the parking issue, she said, FCR would like to dedicate a future task force meeting on that subject.
Contracts and jobs
Gilmartin said that, over $52.6 million of contracts for infrastructure, the railyard, demolition, and mitigation, $21.8 million has been awarded to minority-owned firms, and $4.2 million to women-owned firms.
Yesterday, FCR had 90 workers now on the site, 30 of whom live in CBs 2, 6, or 8. That number will increase when steel arrives on site, she said.
On average, she said, there have been 40 to 50 workers on site, with 10 placed by Community Labor Exchange (CLE). The CLE has placed 45 people overall in construction jobs.
Unmentioned was any context regarding the total amount of governmental assistance and the number of jobs originally promised, both of which dwarf the numbers Gilmartin provided.
A new web site?
"Finally, we are working on creating an information web page," she said. "This will provide the public with regular updates on the project, including issues around construction and traffic. Our goal is to have this up by the end of the year."
Scissura brought up concerns about pedestrian safety on major arteries.
Chris Hrones of the Department of Transportation said that DOT typically does not allow sidewalks to be closed, but will allow it if it's unavoidable and there's not necessarily a demand for sidewalk use.
Regarding Atlantic Avenue, "because there are really no destinations on the arena block, and bus stop eliminated on arena block… we feel comfortable… there's not a pedestrian safety issue."
On Flatbush Avenue, he said, it was clear there would be pedestrian demand. So, working with FCR, DOT created a protected area in the streetbed and closed a lane, thus providing a reversible lane, with plastic probes indicating the lane moved daily by FCR personnel.
Gilmartin said FCR had heard concerns from the North Flatbush BID about lighting in that passageway on Flatbush. "The scrim on chain link fence created a somewhat foreboding, tunnel-like experience," she said. That scrim has been removed, adding more light, and FCR will consider if more lighting if necessary.
Truck routes and community input
FCR's Jane Marshall described posted site rules indicating truck routes. "There are pretty firmly enforced rules. We've dismissed truck drivers for not following them," she said.
"We've actually been helped by the diligent neighbors of the project site in finding out where there have been violations," she added. "And there's been a dialogue with the community that's been very helpful."
Here's one example, with video of trucks blocking Pacific Street.
Block 1129 and the parking shift
Gilmartin said that "the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] requires that we create 1100 parking spaces to serve the arena."
(Actually, I think it discloses that they will create those spaces. Chapter 12 of the Final EIS states. "Approximately 1,100 parking spaces would also be available on-site to accommodate the parking needs of the arena.")
Thus surface parking on Block 1129, on the southeast block, is "really the only terra firm in the project, one of the easier sites to build on, not a lot of complicated infrastructure and subway conditions."
Actually, there's space on Block 1120, the center railyard block, given that buildings jut south from Atlantic Avenue, but FCR and the ESDC, which have delayed a second phase of property acquisition and eminent domain, don't control those sites, once destined for surface parking.
"Until we build residential, the parking will be at grade," Gilmartin said. "As we build buildings, parking will drop, it will happen on a building by building basis."
She said FCR supported residential parking permits and will be be exploring how to make available its parking inventory to the community.
The developer is also "looking at landscaping solutions" regarding Block 1129.
FCR's Bob Sanna noted that Block 1129 is the developer's primary staging area. The building at 752 Pacific Street, which Gilmartin once said would be demolished, "at the moment will remain intact," Sanna said, and used as office space.
Site cleanliness and rodent issues
Sanna said that rodent activity typically arises at early parts of a project, such as demolition or the opening up of the transit facility. That's why little black rodent bait boxes are visible around the site.
How often does this occur, Sanna was asked. "We bait the entire site before demolition," he said. "Ongoing maintenance is probably a 60- to 90-day turnaround."
First building and the rental advantage
Gilmartin said the developer intends to release designs and start construction of the first residential building, known as B2, in the first quarter of next year. Construction should take 18 months, with the building opening in the fourth quarter of 2012 or the first quarter of 2013.
She said the developer is committed to making the building 50% affordable, but "the actual program itself is still being worked out." Translation: subsidies from the city and state are being sought.
She said FCR hoped to start the second residential building (B3) on the arena block six to nine months after construction on B2 begins, then start the third residential building (B4) six to nine months after construction on B3 begins.
(The state gives much more generous deadlines, with the penalties regarding a delay on the third building kicking in only after a decade, in 2020.)
"We are able to build for-sale housing on the arena block. I will tell you that, based on the current state of the market, and what we think is financeable and executable, we think it's more likely these buildings will be rental," Gilmartin said.
"We as a company do like the rental product," she said. "80 DeKalb has proved to us the rental market is strong enough we can convince banks to finance the building and be successful."
She suggested that a future meeting be a presentation of B2, regarding the building, the program, the mix of units and the schedule.
Bear's Garden dumpsters?
Jim Vogel, representing Senator Montgomery and himself a Pacific Street neighbor of the Brooklyn Bear's Garden, said garden members had expressed concern after men wearing hardhats--they were not sure from which agency--said they planned to open up MTA tunnels and "wanted to put a couple of dumpsters in the Bear's Garden, which didn't go over really well with the Bear's."
Hrones said he was unaware of such a plan and said his agency would instead put dumpsters in the street.
Sanna also said he was unfamiliar with the account, but said FCR would reach out to the garden members, noting that the developer "had four years of extensive dialogue with Brooklyn Bear's" during previous construction of the buildings now housing P.C. Richard and Modell's on what is known as Site 5.
James began her questions with a statement encompassing the issues brought to her office: affordable housing, CBA enforcement, small businesses that seek a role at the Barclays Center, permit parking, and security.
"And last, but not least, I had a discussion with [FCR's] Bruce Bender with respect to access, young people hanging out, the Atlantic Mall," she said. "The issue is not closing the door, just providing more security." She referenced FCR's much-criticized policy of dispersing groups of four or more youth.
James said she'd asked "that we provide parking to Church of God and Christ [actually, the Church of Restoration]" on Dean Street, as the fire department one Sunday "unfortunately could not get down Dean Street, because of double and triple-parking… What, if anything, can Atlantic Yards do to address that, to provide parking for the members of that church?"
Gilmartin said FCR could help on Sundays but not Fridays, another day when it's an issue, because it needs to provide construction worker parking. She said the developer was considering a month-to-month license agreement for the church. "We must work out security… we want to try to be helpful."
James said she understood that there was some parking available at the Newswalk building on Pacific Street between Sixth and Carlton avenues. She said perhaps it could be utilized or subsidized.
"I don't know that we're aware of what's available at Newswalk," Gilmartin said briefly.
James asked if Pacific Street between Vanderbilt and Sixth avenues is a truck route.
Marshall said that, while it's not an official truck route, Pacific between Carlton and Vanderbilt is private and one-way Pacific Street is the "least impactful way for the trucks to get to the site."
Sanna noted that the closure of the street allows trucks to queue there.
James asked if night work on water mains, from midnight to 5 a.m. could be modified.
Hrones said "it's a tough issue. We try to be flexible where we can. When it comes to roads like Atlantic and Flatbush, we don't feel comfortable committing work that would allow a lane to be shut down during the day."
James asked about the possibility of work before midnight.
"It's all a question whether contractor can get in there after rush hour and get their work in before midnight," Hrones responded.
The issue remained unresolved.
James asked about parking at Block 1129 and got a misleading response from Meyers.
Is parking at 1129 semi-permanent?
"In terms of when the arena opens, it's surface parking that will be screened," Marshall responded. "As we build out 1129, we'll be excavating and creating the garage below-grade. Ultimately, the parking spaces on 1129 below grade will probably be greater than 1100."
She said the parking would descend two levels, not three, to avoid the water table.
Would parking be 24/7?
It would be for arena and residential use, Marshall said. "It's not allowed to be used by the public, at this point. That's not saying we couldn't explore future things with the community.
Marshall noted that the City Council passed an amendment in 2007 regarding interior landscaping on parking lots.
"Well, we overrode the zoning," Marshall said, implicitly substituting FCR for the ESDC.
Gilmartin said she'd mentioned "our commitment to landscaping."
Marshall said "we are required to do perimeter" landscaping and "if we could do landscaping in the interior, that would be great," but there may not be space available.
James said the Department of City Planning had told her that jurisdiction over such an issue was unclear and referred her to the city's general counsel.
Is there a preliminary parking layout on Block 1129, asked CB 2 District Manager Rob Perris.
Marshall said studies are only preliminary, so they're not ready to be shared.
CB's Hammerman raised questions about police service and the CBA.
"First, I think it's important that at some point we have a conversation with the police departments about the potential impending realignment of the precincts and, in particular, how that might affect future realignment of the community board boundaries," he said. "It's an issue that's been of concern to the community boards for many years now and, unfortunately, we really haven't gotten very far on our own. Perhaps leveraging this body we'd be able to bring it at least to the table and perhaps get an understanding of what that process looks like and how the community and the public in particular can participate in that."
"Second, with all due respect to the Council Member's suggestions, the community boards and the agencies aren't signatories on this CBA," he said. "So, while I understand the importance of the CBA, I have to question the relevance of it to this body And if there's an enforcement issue, it sounds to me like more of a legal matter, and not something of public planning concern. So I have to really question the appropriateness of using the venue for future CBA discussions."
Scissura responded, "Well, I think the CBA is an important part of this whole project. At some point in these meetings, we will be updating people on where we are with it. I think it's something that's come to us."
James added, "In all fairness, the concerns that I've received in my office include, but are not limited to, parking, traffic, security, et cetera. But they've also included the status of the CBA, in fact I've received a number of calls… Even though I was not a party to it and. as you know, was not even in support of this development project. I have a duty and obligation to respond to all constituents. So some constituents have asked, what is the status of the CBA, where are we in respect to hiring, WMBEs, affordable housing, et cetera. So I am just putting all the issues before Forest City Ratner."
Public attendance not solicited
As the video below shows, I queried James and Scissura about the public notice regarding the meeting.
Scissura noted that a letter was sent out to all the agencies and the Community Boards.
I pointed out that public attendance wasn't solicited. (After all, there was no announcement by the CBs.)
James acknowledged, "This is the first of several meetings, and obviously we need to work out all the kinks."
I asked if the public would be invited in the future. Scissura didn't quite answer the question. I said I'd appreciate being informed.