Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Atlantic Yards ombudsman Taylor leaves ESDC after 3.5 years as disempowered facilitator; agency says candidates for job are being interviewed

Sharp-eyed readers of the Empire State Development Corporation's Atlantic Yards page (click on graphics to enlarge) might notice that this:
has been replaced by this:The difference? Ombudsman Forrest Taylor, who took the job in November 2007 calling Atlantic Yards a "sexy project", but soon came to experience the uncomfortable role of not-so-empowered go-between, is no longer listed.

So he won't be at the ESDC/Forest City Ratner meeting tonight about traffic changes.

In response to my query, ESDC spokeswoman Elizabeth Mitchell said, "Forrest Taylor has left ESD for another position and we are currently interviewing prospective candidates for the Atlantic Yards Ombudsman position."

(Peter Krashes writes on Atlantic Yards Watch that Taylor's going to the state housing agency.)

More facilitator than public advocate

Despite the term "ombudsman," and the position's announcement in the wake of the fall of a Ward Bakery parapet, Taylor was more facilitator than public advocate, maintaining equanimity at some highly-charged public meetings, in January 2008 and February 2009.

He formerly was an executive at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and chief of staff to City Council Speaker Gifford Miller.

He got mixed reviews from project opponents--some couldn't get past his role as agent of the ESDC, while others praised his accessibility--and sympathy from elected officials.

Wrote Krashes:
Forrest Taylor was personally liked by community leaders, who found him sincerely interested in resolving problems. But Mr. Taylor's position was a difficult one. He was an advocate for the community within an oversight structure that is not transparent and lacks the staff and independent board of other ESDC projects smaller than Atlantic Yards. Until the appointment of Project Director Arana Hankin in the fall of 2010, Taylor was the only public employee ever to work full-time on the project. And in an agency that has had six leaders under four governors since Atlantic Yards was announced, Mr. Taylor’s three and a half years with the project represents an unusual example of continuity.
(Photo by Jonathan Barkey)

I don't know if Taylor was an "advocate for the community," but he did try, within institutional constraints, to be an honest broker. As he told Atlantic Yards opponent Daniel Goldstein in one exchange, “There are times when I’m with you, Mr. Goldstein. There are times when I’m not.”

"Low on the totem pole"

“I feel for you, Forrest, I really do,” City Council Member Letitia James said at that February 2009 meeting. “I hear Obama is hiring.” The crowd laughed. “I respect your intelligence and I would love to see you in another capacity.”

She asked him to confirm he didn't know if Forest City Ratner was lobbying the state for federal stimulus funds.

"As I tried to make clear, I’m pretty low on the totem pole. It’s not like the old days,” Taylor responded. “So I do not know. So I can imagine, and I know what I read, but I have no firsthand knowledge.”

In October 2009, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries commented that "the ombudsman system... created by the ESDC is was nonfunctional. I think it is nonfunctional because the higher-ups at ESDC aren't interested in empowering the ombudsman in a manner that would benefit the community."

ESDC commitment?

Taylor's role presumably diminished after Hankin, a veteran of the Paterson administration with no significant expertise in development, was in August 2010 named Atlantic Yards Project Manager. The search for the position was not publicly announced.

Nor has the search for Taylor's replacement been publicly announced, as far as I know. Krashes writes:
Forrest Taylor’s departure now presents the ESDC with an opportunity to remake the role so the next ombudsman has authority and resources to responsively address community concerns, and is a partner in decision-making on Atlantic Yards going forward. How Governor [Andrew] Cuomo and [ESDC] Chairman [Kenneth] Adams fill this role will be an indication of their sincerity in engaging constructively with the communities surrounding the project and their elected officials.
I wouldn't bet on the ESDC re-empowering the ombudsman.

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