Friday, May 20, 2011

News from AY District Service Cabinet: Street changes, including Pacific St. reversal, coming in June, fireworks over rats, 60 workers from Brooklyn

Get ready for more construction and previously announced changes on streets in the area of the Atlantic Yards project, starting next month, including the reversal of Pacific Street between Fourth and Flatbush avenues and a new left turn from Pacific to Flatbush, thus diverting traffic that formerly went north on Fourth Avenue.

That was the main takeaway from the third meeting of the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet, held yesterday at Brooklyn Borough Hall and involving representatives of various city and state agencies and community boards. Official notice of the changes is expected June 7, and a public meeting to describe the changes will be held June 14 at Borough Hall from 6:30 to 8 pm.

Another major issue at the meeting, one of the few flashpoints for tension, was raised by City Council Member Letitia James, who reported significant rodent problems at blocks around the site, though Forest City Ratner, pointing to a slippery slope of responsibility, said its responsibility was limited to the site itself.

There was no mention of timing for the much-promised affordable housing and a Forest City Ratner executive indicated the number of local workers is relatively small: 38 of 500 workers on site come from the three adjacent Community Boards, with a total of 60 Brooklyn residents on site.

Also, Forest City Ratner consultant Sam Schwartz inadvertently highlighted a likely problem connected to the arena surface parking lot planned for the block bounded by Dean and Pacific streets and Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues. He indicated that the sidewalks on Pacific Street leading to the arena site were large enough to handle crowds--but didn't acknowledge that the crowds are expected to use Dean Street, which has much narrower sidewalks.

Also, Forest City Ratner asserted that one of its Community Benefit Agreement partners, Brooklyn Endeavor Experience, was briefed and is distributing information on environmental issues, though there's no evidence that's happening.

Dry meeting

All in all, the two-hour meeting was fairly dry. Several neighborhood residents were present, including contributors to the new Atlantic Yards Watch project, and responded with some guarded optimism. “I think a lot of issues were thrown up there, which is useful,” said Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association.

However, as Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council noted, a significant amount of time was spent on long presentations that instead could have been provided to participants ahead of time, leaving time for more questions and exchanges.

Also present were several Forest City Ratner staffers, and James Caldwell and Marie Louis of Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD).

No other elected officials were present.

Traffic changes coming

As Forest City Ratner consultant Sam Schwartz explained, construction of certain traffic mitigation measures required in the Final Environmental Impact Statement must begin in June, because they have only two construction seasons to get the work done before the arena opens in the late summer of 2012 and that work at the congested intersection of Atlantic, Flatbush, and Fourth avenues must be done on nights and weekends.

Pointing to the gridlock at that intersection, he said traffic planners decided to take the shortest leg, on Fourth Avenue going north between Pacific Street and Atlantic Avenue, out of circulation.

Thus, Pacific Street would be made one way eastbound, and drivers would have to do what the Brooklyn Paper dubbed the “Fourth-to-Flatbush Two-Step.”

Listening to Schwartz, Jon Crow, a coordinator of the Brooklyn Bear’s community garden at Pacific and Flatbush, shook his head. He later said he had no problem with the direction change, but thinks that allowing a left for traffic going north on Flatbush would create its own gridlock.

Jim Vogel, an aide to state Senator Velmanette Montgomery and a resident of that Pacific Street block, warned, “On that short little block where that traffic is going to reverse, that block association is freaking out. They could use some official notice, some warning, well in advance.”

Forest City Ratner executive Jane Marshall said such notice would be issued “as soon as we can,” with publication in newspapers June 7, before the work starts. Before then, the presentation on traffic changes should be posted on the web sites of Forest CIty Ratner and the Empire State Development Corporation. Print copies will be distributed to elected officials, business improvement districts, and community boards.

Traffic agents

While New York Police Department has four traffic agents posted at that intersection, Forest City Ratner will pay for two more on a temporary basis, at Pacific Street and Fourth Avenue and at Pacific Street and Flatbush Avenue.

Do they anticipate additional agents, asked James, who asked numerous questions, often on point but sometimes nitpicking. She was the only person to ask tough questions.

“Not at this time,” replied Schwartz.

“We don't anticipate any more traffic agents unless requested by DOT,” Marshall said, adding that the city agency would decide what “temporary” means; “it can be a month, two months.”

More changes

Starting this summer, Fourth Avenue northbound between Pacific Street and Atlantic Avenue will be eliminated, Pacific street will be reversed, going east from Fourth, and a dedicated right turn lane will be installed at Atlantic and Third Avenues.

Other changes later on, Schwartz said, are less dramatic, including a new median on Atlantic Avenue between Fort Greene Place and South Portland Avenue, and various curb extensions.

A lane adjacent to the arena will be labeled “no standing,” Schwartz said, but will function as a drop-off lane.

Sidewalks from the arena

Pacific Street between Carlton and Sixth avenues will be returned to two-way service. While the roadway will be widened slightly, “we still have adequate sidewalks, 15 feet on the north side, 18 feet on south,” Schwartz said. “We had a question of people leaving the parking lot, these sidewalks can handle the pedestrians.”

Are more people supposed to walk on Pacific, or Dean? I told Marshall later that my reading of the Final Environmental Impact Statement indicates that the main route would be Dean Street, and she said “that’s what we thought... I don’t think he was referring to what the FEIS looked at.”

The sidewalk on Dean Street between Carlton and Sixth narrows to six feet and eight feet at times. If 33 feet is adequate, something less than that is inadequate, I pointed out.

The existing conditions were the ones that were studied,” she said. Actually, the state studied the crosswalks, not the sidewalks.

She noted that the developer would follow the FEIS, which requires an assessment of traffic and transit mitigations some six months after the arena opens.

“We all should wait to see what’s a success and what’s a failure, in terms of traffic and then adjust it--and pedestrian safety," she said. "We care as much if not more about every issue that everybody raises.”

“For good business reasons,” I responded.

“Business and we’re in this neighborhood--we’ve invested billions of dollars in this borough, and we care a lot about it,” she added.

Well, borough and neighborhood are not always the same thing.

Even if that leads to a new route to the arena, that suggests that residents of residential Dean Street will endure at least one season of arena-goers tromping past them.

Demand management

“What's likelihood of a ticket and a MetroCard,” asked James, referring to a much-publicized option aimed at reducing driving.

“That's what we're pursuing,” Marshall responded. “We might be able to put a ticket on a MetroCard, but we might not be able to put a MetroCard on a ticket.” (Future meetings will address demand management strategies.)

James said there should be less emphasis on parking and cars and more on transit.

“I agree with you,” Marshall responded coyly. “I don't think we should have any parking, but that's just me.” Of course high rollers buying Forest City Ratner’s suites want their parking spaces.

Getting the story

James asked for a copy of Schwartz’s presentation, but was rebuffed.

Arana Hankin, the ESDC’s Atlantic Yards project manager, said it would be put on the ESDC web site on Monday.

“You have a copy, Forest City Ratner has a copy,” James pressed on.

“I don't have a copy either,” Marshall said. “We have a copy here and we're going to make it all public.”

“Sam has a copy,” James responded.

“The public is going to have three weeks,” Hankin countered.

“But I would like to review it today,” James said.

“We'll talk about this offline,” declared meeting chair Carlo Scissura, chief of staff to Borough President Marty Markowitz.

Update on previous issues

Participants updated some ongoing issues raised at previous meetings. Hankin said the ESDC had met with various agencies regarding sidewalk maintenance around the project site. The Department of Sanitation has attempted notice of property owners and Forest City Ratner has stepped up its responsibilities, such as removing snow, after maintenance had lagged.

Also, after concerns about an open LIRR gate, the railroad has installed a lock, distributed keys, and a posted a security guard.

The DOT’s Chris Hrones noted that, though there had been a request for new bus shelters along Atlantic Avenue, it’s not appropriate at this time to place a shelter on a construction site.

He said they were also asked about a new Variable Message Sign (VMS) that indicates the reversible narrowing of traffic on Flatbush Avenue between Dean Street and Atlantic Avenue. He said DOT felt the pattern had been well established.

Construction update

FCR’s Linda Chiarelli said mass excavation is basically done, with a small amount left over for next year. Foundation work is at 90%, with foundation walls at 85%; all foundation work, except for some minor components, should be done in June.

Steel for the arena is about 35% erected, and the facade will start to be erected in July. The Dean Street ramp to the site should be closed in June, and supplanted by the Pacific Street ramp back in service.

Regarding work on the Carlton Avenue Bridge and a new railyard, “they've been drilling piles... excavation will probably start in end of June/early July,” she said.

Transit work at the tip of the site is continuing, with “major steel coming in, and a lot of concrete being poured.” DEP water main work continues. At the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush, construction hours have been extended to take advantage of extended daylight hours and weather, and because it’s important to start before trains come into the yard.

The last demolitions on the site--other than the building FCR is using for offices--should start in the next two weeks.

Contracting and jobs

FCR’s Sonya Covington, rather than any promised Independent Compliance Monitor, reported on some data required in the Community Benefits Agreement, as well as state contracts.

Various segments of work have, respectively, 15% 17%, 50%, and 39% assigned to MWBE (minority and women business enterprises) contractors, with the larger percentages assigned to smaller totals. However, no written report was assigned, and it’s unclear where the firms are located.

Currently there are 500 workers on the site--larger than previously announced, I believe, but difficult to trumpet since it’s so much smaller than the numbers promised.

There have been 70 placements through the Community Labor Exchange, aimed at local workers, including 38 placements from Community Boards 2,6, and 8. “Approximately 60 workers of all the workers on site are Brooklyn residents,” she said.

Environmental commitments

One of the longest--and driest--segments of the two-hour meeting regarded the ESDC’s oversight of mitigation measures specified in the FEIS and set forth in a memo of environmental commitments (MEC).

“We take this very seriously,” ESDC planning chief Rachel Shatz declared, noting that the MEC was incorporated in the Development Agreement.

The ESDC hired the firm HDR to provide professional and technical support. HDR staffer Jeff Martirano went through a long Power Point presentation regarding oversight, which includes visits to the site at least once a week, and efforts to pursue air quality measures, noise abatement, traffic mitigation, rodent control, soil remediation, and protection of historic buildings.

The contractors, he said, have generally been in compliance, but “isolated instances” of noncompliance have been addressed. They include uncovered or partially covered soil piles, some drivers--often new ones--not following truck routes, or queuing and idling requirements, one improper removal of an unknown fuel oil underground storage tank, initial inadequate placement/quantity of air monitors, and occasional equipment without proper DPF (diesel particulate filter) installed.

“In each case, the equipment has quickly been brought into compliance or removed from site if retrofitting not possible,” he said.

CBA connection?

“What,” James asked, “is your relationship to this alleged group that was part of CBA [Community Benefits Agreement] supposed to monitor air quality?”

Unmentioned: the head of that group, Brooklyn Endeavor Experience, Delia Hunley-Adossa, challenged James in 2009, and lost badly. It has essentially a Potemkin responsibility, as I've written, because the CBA says, regarding environmental mitigation, that "the Developer shall be in compliance with this Agreement by following the state mandated process."

The ESDC, Hankin said, has retained HDR, and the agency is not a party to the CBA.

James asked if anyone at Forest City Ratner could say “what that entity did, if anything, with respect to these issues.”

“That group was Brooklyn Endeavor Experience,” Marshall said, explaining that FCR typically briefs them on environmental conditions and we disseminate to the community to "through her web site."

“When was last time they were briefed?” asked James.

“Last week,” responded Marshall.

If so, BEE isn’t exactly keeping up; the most recent AY construction updates on its web site are from last September.

More air monitoring?
James asked if there was air monitoring in the public housing, senior center, and Mitchell Lama buildings along Atlantic Avenue. The answer was no.

“We totally hear what you're saying,” Hankin responded. “The monitor ensures that conditions are not escaping the construction site.”

Enforcing the rules

James asked: Are contractors fined if drivers disobey the rules?

No, responded FCR's Chiarelli. “We felt the best approach was that people are terminated.”

Is training to given to new drivers, James asked.

“They're given a list of the rules,” Hankin responded.

“Handed to them or trained?” James continued.

“They're given the flyer,” Hankin responded.

“Do you engage them in conversation,” James asked.

“It's not within our purview,” Hankin responded.

Licensed truck drivers must be trained, Marshall said. “Site specific rules are given to them in advance and explained by contractors, and if they break those rules, they're terminated.”

James asked when the HDR presentation and other reports would be available on the ESDC web site

“Some things we consider working documents,” Shatz responded. Later, when asked if the HDR presentation would be posted, Hankin said that ESDC lawyers would provide guidance.

Vehicular visibility at Dean and Sixth

Driving has become more hazardous because of the blue plywood fence at the corner of Dean and Sixth; FCR’s Chiarelli said a plastic viewing panel inserted into the lower piece of the plywood. “I believe we can replace that bottom half with a chain link fence, provided we can get approval of a variance,” she said.

“I'd ask that you do that quickly,” Scissura said.

“Is there any way of moving the whole structure back from the curb line?” asked Hrones of the DOT.

No, responded Chiarelli and Marshall, because of site needs.

Parking problems

James pointed out that there's still illegal parking around the Sixth Avenue bridge.

"We've told our contractors not to park illegally," Marshall said.

Is it the police?

"We raised it with police," Hankin said. "They said they haven't had complaints from the community."

That's questionable, community members told me.

The rodent issue

After Martirano described the requirements for rodent bait traps, James said that work is inadequate. “Your rodent abatement program needs to be revisited,” she said.

Hankin nodded.

“I urge you to meet with residents” of Carlton Avenue and Dean Street, James said. “We have a major rodent problem in and around the footprint.”

Later a Department of Health representative said part of the issue was careful treatment of garbage. She noted a booklet called Preventing Rats on Your Property.

While the city can’t recommend treatment companies, “people can always look in the Yellow Pages,” she said.

Pressing FCR

James followed up. “Can homeowners get reimbursed for rodent abatement? Will Forest City Ratner consider it?”

No, responded Marshall flatly.

“Will Forest City Ratner improve rodent abatement?” James continued.

“We will work with HDR,” Marshall said, noting that they are required to abate the construction site... I don't know how many go into community. The only thing we can do is increase abatement on site.”

“You provided air conditioners” to respond to construction noise from the project, James pointed out, citing a responsibility from the environmental review.

“We can't do it,” Marshall said a bit tensely, “because we cannot place poison on people's properties, we're not going to hire exterminators... Because once you start with this block, it goes to the next block, and the next block.”

“Right now it's limited to two blocks,” James responded, saying she asked FCR to work with two block association.

“Soon it will be all of Prospect Heights,” Marshall responded testily.

“Only two blocks are calling me,” James countered.

“Just remember, the answer is no,” responded Marshall.

Marshall had a point; it would be ridiculous to blame Forest City Ratner for a pestilence that pervades the city. That said, it’s unlikely that rats caused by construction work on the site are absolutely confined to the site.

She later told me that ”the Long Island Rail Road is going to be excavating for a long time; I am very worried about setting a precedent.”

Thus, it’s a question--as they say in the law of negligence--of “proximate cause.” So perhaps a good lawyer could argue that the rats in the immediate perimeter can be blamed, at least in part on Forest City Ratner.

Demand management

This will be an issue for another meeting, but strategies include free subway fare with tickets, remote parking, cross marketing to spread arrivals and departures, HOV parking, bike parking, and "limited onsite parking."

With 400 spaces, Schwartz said, it would be “the largest bike parking facility in North America, as far as we know.”

Note that a facility in Amsterdam has 7000+ spaces, and one in Sao Paulo, Brazil, has 1700 spaces.

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