Friday, February 11, 2011

More from AY cabinet meeting: few workers on site, reversible lane snag, demand management upgrade, sidewalk dispute with LIRR, wariness re public

Updated 5:46 pm with map and explanation on why this meeting was not subject to the open meetings law.

The lead news from the second meeting of the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet,held yesterday at Brooklyn Borough Hall, concerned the delayed (but architect-assigned) Building 2 and the re-launch of Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards web site.

But there were several other pieces of news, including a rather low number of local workers. FCR said there are about 150 workers at the site now, with 58 local residents placed though a Community Labor Exchange since the start of construction, with 19 now on the site. (Here's more on the lag between numbers and projections.)

A Community Board District Manager expressed dismay over the weather-related demise of a reversible lane along Flatbush Avenue.

Forest City Ratner said it would beef up a previously announced demand management plan to reduce driving to the arena, and then share it for public comment.

The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) reported on an unresolved dispute involving the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and the city Department of Transportation (DOT) regarding clearing/cleaning of the railyard perimeter.

There also was an unsettled/unsettling vibe regarding transparency, given a relatively low level of participation by cabinet members as well as a wariness toward the public and press, as described below. (The meeting wasn’t announced, and videotaping was banned.)

The meeting was attended by representatives of various agencies, Community Boards, and elected officials involved in the project. The only elected official to attend was Council Member Letitia James. FCR executive MaryAnne Gilmartin, unlike at the first meeting in November, did not attend.

Milestones murky

Early in the meeting, James asked about project milestones, a question that might provide some insight on the overall timetable.

ESDC Project Manager Arana Hankin deflected the question somewhat, pointing to Forest City Ratner’s plan to provide a more focused update on current construction.

Construction update: excavation contradictions

Forest City Ratner’s Linda Chiarelli said that excavation is now 75% complete and and should be completed in early March. Foundation work should be done in June.

By contrast, last September, Bruce Ratner said excavation was 70% complete. In October, he said it was "75-to-80% complete."

Steel is 20-25 percent erected, “you can see the bowl start to form,” Chiarelli said, pointing to a slide. “We'll start to see facade panels come in July, along Atlantic Avenue.”

Work is ongoing regarding the Carlton Avenue Bridge, with demolition basically done on the north abutments, and pile-drilling for support of excavation to begin in a few weeks. Work on Transit Authority vents should be starting in March.

In the next 30 to 60 days, FCR plans to start demolishing remaining buildings on Block 1129, the southeast block.

MWBE contracting

Forest City Ratner’s Sonya Covington sketched figures regarding MWBE (minority and women’s business enterprises) contracting. Some 98% of the $16.6 million infrastructure has been done by minority and women owned firms.

Mostly women or minority, asked James.

“It's been mostly minority,” Covington said. “The majority of the firms throughout the project site that have gotten work... are Brooklyn-based firms, as well.”

She said about $305.5 million for arena work has been contracted through Hunt Construction, about $36.5 million, or 12%, to MWBE firms.

Regarding transit work, she said, of $51 million, there’s been $8.2 million to MWBEs, of 16%. For demoliton, $14.1 million has been awarded to date, with 50%, or $7 million, to MWBEs.

Railyard work, including the Carlton Avenue Bridge, is $46.8 million, of which $18 million, or 38.5%, has gone to MWBEs.

No documents were released, however, and no Independent Compliance Monitor has been hired, so all those numbers could use further clarification.

Demand management upgrade

Marshall said that FCR has hired Sam Schwartz Engineering, its longtime consultant, to augment and refine the previously announced demand management plan, involving incentives to use transit and shuttle buses rather than drive to arena events.

“The demand management plan cannot just address the Nets,” Marshall said, referencing a criticism that had been raised during the environmental review. “So we're not going to look at what the FEIS [Final Environmental Impact Statement] requires"--see p. 11 of this document--"we're going to create what we hope is a really good, solid plan.”

“How far out are you looking?” asked James.

Marshall noted that “the FEIS goes all the way to Staten Island,” though she expressed skepticism that people would park in Staten Island and get on a bus to ride 45 minutes to the arena.

“We want to come up with a structure with substance in it and present it to the Community Boards for comments and input,” Marshall said. “I don't think that's going to be for another six months.”

James asked if they were taking residential parking permits into consideration.

Marshall said FCR was “perfectly happy with” such permits, but doesn’t play a role.

Later Marshall explained that it didn’t make sense to just describe the measures in the FEIS. Rather, she said, “We're going to come up with a plan,” discuss it with agencies and stakeholders, and then present it at meetings.

“That makes sense,” agreed James.

ESDC role

ESDC planner Rachel Shatz explained that a memorandum of environmental commitments describes mitigation measures at the site. One firm, HDR, acts as a mitigation monitor regarding issues like traffic and air quality, and the owners’ representatives, STV, also plays a role.

Have there been any issues, asked Craig Hammerman, District Manager of Community Board 6.

Shatz described a few issues regarding equipment without appropriate filters, which were taken out of use or piled soil that was not properly covered.

No reversible lane

The Department of Transportation’s Chris Hrones said that, after the late December storm, the flexible bollards used to create a reversible lane along Flatbush Avenue just south of Atlantic Avenue have been damaged.

He said DOT was working with Forest City Ratner to get new such delineators in place, but have been delayed by continued storms. He said they should be back in place by next week.

“I can't stress how critical that capacity is, and how detrimental it has been to lose it,” Hammerman said. He asked whether the problem could return.

Hrones said such problems recur after storms. As for alternatives, it would be inappropriate to put in a costly overhead sign for such a temporary diversion, given that such signs are devoted to permanent lane changes.

Bus shelters?

James said she’d received a lot of complaints, particularly from seniors, about the removal of bus shelters on Atlantic Avenue.

Hrones said he’d be happy to explore, with Forest City Ratner, a temporary solution. Meeting chair Carlo Scissura, chief of staff to Borough President Marty Markowitz, said Markowitz also would weigh in.

Sanitation/snow removal snag

Hankin projected a map of the project site that delineates the responsibility by various entities for cleaning and clearing the sidewalks.

(Click to enlarge)

At the western end of the site, a contractor working on transit is responsible, while Hunt Construction is responsible for the arena block.

Forest City Ratner, which has a lease arrangement with the ESDC, has taken responsibility for most of the site.

The problem comes with property along Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street east of Sixth Avenue that is owned by the Long Island Rail Road.

“There's much confusion about who's responsible,” James said, referring to the confusing map, “because as of today, some streets are plowed, some are shoveled.”

Hankin said she’d talked to the LIRR’s senior counsel, who said the agency is not subject to local ordinances. (I reported on this dispute January 14.)

James suggested that the issue should “go up the food chain to the governor of the state of New York, who has jurisdiction over all agencies... The only thing that has helped you is the sun.”

“This is an ongoing debate between DOT and LIRR,” Hankin said, referring to issues well beyond Atlantic Yards.

(And, I'd point out, this answers the question, never quite answered in the ESDC's response to comments in 2006, as to who's responsible for the "blight" at MTA property.)

More meetings needed

Community Board 2 District Manager Robert Perris suggested that cabinet meetings, rather than quarterly, should be every other month.

He also proposed that presenters share their notes/reports in advance, which would shorten meetings. He also pointed out that “people had a number of question we haven't really gotten to, in part because those questions were finalized so close to today’s meeting.”

Scissura responded that “this meeting is not all that we do,” adding that “questions are going back and forth with everyone involved on an almost daily basis... The purpose of this meeting is really to get an update from Forest City, to get an update from the affected agencies, and to bring up general things. We just feed questions all the time.”

“I think that's exactly right,” Hankin said.

Hammerman asked if anyone objected to the schedule.

“I have no objections,” Hankin said, but stressed she wanted the process to be as productive as possible. “Frankly ESDC and FCR do not receive an overabundance of issues/complaints regarding the site,” she said. “I don't want us to meet just to meet.”

Hammerman responded, “Frankly, I didn't get the impression that this entity was supposed to be a demand-driven entity... I think it's a good investment of all of our time.”

Scissura said that, while the next meeting had been tentatively scheduled for May 5, “why don't we shoot for mid-April?”

James said she agreed with bimonthly meetings. “Things are beginning to pick up,” she said. “A day does not go by where I do not field questions regarding Atlantic Yards.”

That suggests that people are contacting her office far more than the ESDC.

Not a public meeting

At the outset, Scissura announced that it was not a public meeting, and that videotaping would not be permitted.

That statement was clearly aimed at me--the only other press person was Rich Calder of the Post, who wrote an overview-- and a minute later, when Scissura was no longer speaking to the group, I approached him. He told me that if I shot video (as I did in November) they’d have me removed.

Later in the meeting, ESDC project manager Hankin, with a bit of edge in her voice, stated that meetings of the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet are not subject to the open meetings law.

She said that had been confirmed with the legal counsel of the ESDC and the Borough President’s Office. “Therefore we are not required to post the date of the meetings or invite the public; as a courtesy we've agreed to allow the public to attend,” she said.

Hankin noted that there are multiple avenues for the public to ask questions, via Forest City Ratner and the ESDC. “This body is really serving as an interagency working group.”

After the meeting, I asked Hankin and Scissura by email for documentation that explained why the meeting was not subject to the open meetings law, as well as the rationale for banning videotaping.

The ESDC sent an answer this afternoon:
The Open Meetings Law applies to “public bodies” (Public Officers Law, Section 102(1)). A “public body” is defined as any entity for which 1) a quorum is required and (not “or”) 2) which consists of two or more members performing a governmental function for a “public corporation” (which under General Construction Law Section 66 includes a public benefit corporation, e.g., UDC) (Public Officers Law, Section 102(2)).

The Atlantic Yards District Cabinet does not require a quorum to meet. Given that the quorum requirement is one of two requirements for being a “public body”, the group would not appear to meet the definition of a public body. Consequently, the requirements of the Open Meetings Law are not triggered.

As for the second requirement that the entity consist of two or more members performing a governmental function for a public corporation, it may be argued that this requirement is met. However, such argument seems moot given the failure of the group, as described, to meet the first requirement of section 102(2).

Lastly, ESD did not restrict your ability to videotape the session.
Need for transparency

I can see the argument for non-public meetings, which can be used to air frank concerns and criticisms. Indeed, given the mild tensions expressed by some representatives of community boards, perhaps there would be a stronger back-and-forth in private.

On the other hand, there's an argument for public meetings. Atlantic Yards remains a giant project, and Forest City Ratner has gotten large amounts of direct and indirect government aid.

So the various promises and plans should be subject to scrutiny and evaluation, especially since no governance entity--as with other major ESDC projects--has been established.

At one point during the meeting yesterday, Prospect Heights activist Peter Krashes moved to sit next to James aide Alfred Chiodo at the conference table--otherwise limited to cabinet members--and spoke to him. That led Scissura to say a bit sourly, “Alfred, I see you've been fed some questions.”

There were only a couple of members of the public present, but it still seemed that scrutiny and questions were considered intrusive.

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