Friday, June 24, 2011

An avalanche of rat complaints: eating garbage, car insulation, infesting houses and backyards; agencies pressed to move faster; CM James says she's "shocked" (updated)

If anyone thought that complaints about rat problems in the area around Atlantic Yards were isolated carping, they could hear an avalanche of anecdote tonight at a contentious meeting that drew a diverse crowd of 60 people, many from beyond the orbit of the sponsor Dean Street Block Association.

"We don't have a normal rat problem, we have a rat tsunami," observed Dean Street resident Karen-Ida Scott.

Others described a car catching on fire from food debris dragged into an engine by rats, garbage cans torn up, kids unable to play in the Dean Street Playground, and rodents appearing, alarmingly, inside houses and on people lounging in backyards.

"I now park in Park Slope," recounted John Martinez (at right, speaking), aiming to save his car's insulation from regular rat attacks. "If gets any further, I'll have to take a cab to my car."

Others lodged complaints from as far away as Fort Greene.

"I was shocked," commented Council Member Letitia James (left, standing), who organized the meeting, held at the Soapbox Gallery on Dean Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues. "The magnitude of the problem is astonishing. It requires immediate action."

(Photos and set by Tracy Collins)

Below is a report from WPIX TV, taped before the meeting.


Solutions coming?

Those on the hot seat, representatives of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the city Department of Health, and the city Department of Sanitation, were attentive, saying they'd share the information and work to take additional action. Residents logged specific incident complaints for follow-up.

And the ESDC's Arana Hankin (speaking) said developer Forest City Ratner would soon be doing more within the property it controls.

But residents were skeptical of several responses, and the agencies clearly weren't ready to move at the pace residents and James desire. In fact, James said she'd ask Governor Andrew Cuomo to declare a "state of emergency" to ensure changes.

She also said she wanted a future Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting to focus on rats.

No representative of Forest City Ratner attended the meeting, nor did anyone from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or Long Island Rail Road, other involved parties--though Hankin said she'd bring the latter two to a future meeting.

Worse than ever

And while Forest City is reluctant to take the blame--and, understandably, legal liability--for a citywide scourge that has multiple causes, residents were convinced that Atlantic Yards was the catalyst. "I've lived on Dean Street for 49 years; this is the worst I've ever seen it," observed Rosa Cintron.

"I'm here since 1963; we never saw so many rats like this," recounted Joe Pastore (left, speaking), a longtime resident of Dean Street who was relocated from the arena block. "I have seen big rats like cats eat right through the plastic bags."

Hankin said that, while she doesn't have the authority to make Forest City Ratner pay for rodent control beyond the site footprint, she will take up the issue with the Department of Health. "If they feel it's necessary we'll have a strong case to force Forest City Ratner to do so."

Ongoing "disconnect"

Audrey Taitt-Hall, a member of Community Board 8, recounted how she'd seen hay placed around the perimeter of project work areas, notably at Vanderbilt Avenue. She asked workers if the hay had been baited and was told no, it was only there to suppress dust.

"That's the area where they're about to lay 180 bait traps," Hankin reported.

Why did they wait, one attendee asked.

They're not required to set that number of traps, Hankin responded, "and we're not receiving any complaints."

That drew a dismayed response from meeting organizer Peter Krashes, who noted that the Dean Street Block Association has long kept a log of 311 calls, including those regarding rodent complaints.

"Call us directly," said Hankin, who took her post last August, and now must fill the opening left by the recent departure of project ombudsman Forrest Taylor.

Krashes responded that people are trained to use 311.

Hankin said she's reached out to the city clearinghouse. "When I hear about issues, I go back to the developer, and the developer has responded.

"There's a disconnect," James commented warily.

Hankin seconded her: "There's a huge disconnect."

Solutions complex

After the meeting, the Department of Health's Rick Simeone (left) said his agency would send inspectors to determine the magnitude of the problem. He said earlier that such a problem requires a multi-step solution, involving not just Forest City Ratner, but all of those in the neighborhood responsible for garbage.

However plausible, that explanation generated further frustration, since one suggestion--that garbage be put out not the night before (as permitted) but the morning of pick-up--was met with the observation that the Department of Sanitation may not pick up until much later in the day.

The awkward fit

One suggested solution exemplified the awkward fit between such a large project and the mostly residential neighborhood on its southern and eastern border. Covered metal trash cans would do more to deter rats than plastic cans, mesh cans, or plastic bags, but the Department of Sanitation does not supply them, they must be sponsored.

"Primarily I put them on commercial corridors," James observed.

In this case, a residential neighborhood may need it.

James also said she'd look into whether residents could resume using steel cans--apparently phased out after collective bargaining--instead of less sturdy alternatives.

Not the end of the problem

The rat infestation seems to have galvanized numerous area residents who were not necessarily active Atlantic Yards opponents, but now see the impact of the project falling disproportionately on them.

A massive surface parking lot of 1100 spaces is planned across the street from the meeting location. Jimmy Greenfield, owner of the Soapbox Gallery, observed that "we should really make as big a stink as possible" now so that Forest City Ratner is attentive to community concerns that surely will surface once the arena comes closer to opening.

Krashes observed that, around other arenas in the country, there's precedent for the arena operator to address neighborhood concerns like garbage.

Opening up

Before the meeting began, James sat for an interview with WPIX-TV's Kaity Tong. She blamed construction, demolition, and inadequate baiting for the problem.

"It's common to see rats, but not to this extent," James said, noting that her office had received about 50 calls regarding rats. "ESDC should monitor the situation, and Forest City Ratner should pay for it."
James suggested that, because of the recent media focus, the streets had been cleaned that day. (I can't be certain of cause and effect.)

Multiple sources

Meeting organizer Krashes listed several contributors to the problem, including residents who lack garbage cans with lids, garbage left out  by city agencies (parks, fire, police), and a failure to clean streets in the face of illegally parked cars, by construction workers and city agencies.

He suggested that residents, including himself, should do more to keep sidewalks clean, as should Forest City Ratner.

DOH's Simeone commented, "If we don't all work collectively, on this issue, it's not going to get resolved. I thought it was just going to be Dean Street, it's a little bigger than I thought."…

He noted that his agency is not responsible for abatement at schools and public housing, "but I do represent city agencies on a task force that meets once a week."

ESDC comment

The ESDC's Hankin allowed that "the developer has not been as clean and custodial as they could be" but said they "have been very responsive to complaints from community."

The ESDC has contractors, including an environmental monitor and an owner's representative, at the site several days a week. Forest City is required by law to bait before demolition and also has is more actively baiting around the arena site and transit tip at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.

"There's more work that needs to be done on the eastern portion of the site," Hankin said, describing a plan to put 150 bait traps inside the construction fence.

The work will be done by a local, Brooklyn-based, minority-owned firm, Hankin said, a designation that surely wins approval in certain constituencies but left the Brooklyn-based audience, with a significant number of minorities, unmoved.

Jon Crow, coordinator of the Brooklyn Bear's Garden, challenged Hankin several times, saying he had inspected the site perimeter but saw no bait traps.

"They're very hard to see," Hankin said.

She called the Atlantic Yards Watch web site Krashes helped establish "fantastic and wonderful, but if we don't hear from you directly, we won't be able to resolve the issue."

She said it was important to learn that  trash was discarded by construction workers, and that there was a need to "stay on top of" vendors and contractors.

The Long Island Rail Road "needs to be baiting," she said, noting she has a meeting scheduled with the agency. "The Transit Authority is baiting, but there may be an opportunity for them to do more."

Bruno Iciano (speaking at left) of the Department of Sanitation cautioned residents to put waste out carefully, without fluid and food, and to call the department with complaints.

Then James brought up the possibility of covered cans.

"No more mesh cans," warned Crow from the audience. "It's a rat cafe."

Audience concerns

One 40-year resident, on Park Place between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues, echoed the general mood. While he said he didn't want to solely blame the developer, "I've never seen rodents like I've seen them now."

He said he was afraid to have his 12-year-old child take the garbage out. He also pointed to the problem caused by a restaurant near his home at Flatbush Avenue.

Iciano commented that his department doesn't regulate private carters used by such businesses. "They're allowed to put waste out an hour prior to closing," he said, but those concerned about the operation of private carters can contact the Business Integrity Commission.

More disconnect

"I find it's incredible that ESDC can say no complaints have been filed," commented Pacific Street resident Wayne Bailey, who has filed his share.

"Not with us," responded Hankin.

How can ESDC not get complaints filed through channels like 311?

Hankin said her point was that people should contact ESDC directly, "as opposed to complaining to blogs or web sites."

The "rat tsunami"

Comments by agency representatives frustrated several members of the audience.

"We're talking about measures to address a normal problem," observed Scott. "We don't have a normal rat problem, we have a rat tsunami. I can see the trash cans next to my window overflowing with rats."

"Forest City Ratner has to make a concerted effort to address the entire community," she added.

Simeone noted it will take several steps.

James asked for a task force devoted to this problem.

Simeone said he can't establish a separate task force, but can make it an issue addressed by the current task force.

More concerns

Cintron, who lives across from the Dean Street Playground east of Sixth Avenue, said that kids can no longer play there. Beyond that, several neighbors accused members of the Fire Department--who presumably live in towns where they must pay for garbage disposal--for bringing their personal garbage to be disposed in Brooklyn.

"I've never seen rats in Fort Greene," commented Lucy Koteen, an Atlantic Yards opponent who was one of several Fort Greene residents (the rest not active in the opposition) at the meeting. Lately, she said, she's seen rats the size of large squirrels.

Koteen suggested that people freeze meat scraps to make such garbage less appetizing, and challenged ESDC and FCR to make a commitment to clean up.

Hankin said, as noted above, Forest City won't go beyond the perimeter until and unless DOH makes it an issue.

Could Forest City Ratner provide property owners cans with lids, asked Krashes.

"They're open to exploring it," Hankin said.

Pacific Street resident Alan Rosner said the McDonald's at Vanderbilt and Atlantic avenues "has absolutely inadequate storage" but that calls to DOH have been fruitless.

Garineh Galian (speaking in photo), who lives at 6th Avenue near Dean Street, said that construction workers regularly eat their lunch on the street--there are take-out restaurants a block away--and toss garbage to the ground. "My neighbors and I have to maneuver which blocks we can walk the dogs, because of the garbage and rats."

"What I can't understand is this is not unusual when there's a major construction site," observed another woman. "Why wasn't this addressed before? Why are we suffering? Mr. Ratner lives on Park Avenue, he doesn't have this problem."

"I don't have the answer," Iciano responded.

Martinez observed that rats won't be attracted to bait as long as there's food around--and that rats consider a wide variety of materials food, including car insulation. He said that, at the auto service center he used, four cars faced the problem. Sooner or later, it will be recognized by insurance companies.

One woman even suggested a class action suit to respond to the problem.

Another, Deborah Howard, said "you have to dodge [rats] coming into my house… A few months ago, they ate into the house."

She shocked some onlookers by describing how her car caught on fire, as the engine combustion intersected with food and bones that rats dragged underneath the hood.

ESDC and the press

From the audience, I asked Hankin to elaborate more on her description of Forest City's new commitment, and what triggered it.

Hankin, who prefaced her remarks by saying she was not supposed to be talking with the press, said the developer follows its legal requirement to bait and trap before demolition, and has gone beyond it to bait around the entire perimeter.

(She didn't quite elaborate, and when I approached her after the meeting she repeated that she was not permitted to talk with the press, and to file further questions with the public affairs office.)

"A chorus of people are saying that's not true," James observed. She asked who supervises the developer, and Hankin cited the ESDC's owner's representative.
Krashes said the ESDC environmental monitor, HDR, was invited to the meeting.

"That's my role," Hankin said.

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