Five nights after a contentious meeting (about rats) in the Soapbox Gallery on Dean Street, Prospect Heights residents gathered in the same space last night to express concerns about parking, traffic, and pedestrian issues in the eastern end of the site, notably the planned 1100-space parking lot in the block bounded by Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Dean and Pacific streets.
The two-hour meeting was periodically contentious, with residents expressing frustration at vague, incomplete answers, and promises of future solutions.
Beyond that, a representative of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) indicated that developer Forest City Ratner (FCR) was in violation of the Memorandum of Environmental Commitments by not having a daily on-site representative to interface with the community.
(Update: see bottom for an ESDC statement, in response to my follow-up question, that avoids the issue of how to get FCR out of violation. Patch reported that
This morning, Joe DePlasco, a Forest City Ratner spokesman said via e-mail that while the company already has “two people who are on the site consistently and full time at least two days a week,” from now on the developer “will ensure that there is at least one person always on the site during working hours.”
Meanwhile, the ESDC’s top spokeswoman, Elizabeth Mitchell, denied that the mega-developer was ever in violation, saying that the agreement never specified how many hours the liaison had to be on site.)
The meeting was sponsored by the Carlton Avenue and Dean Street Block Associations, with two ESDC and two FCR representatives present, along with an FCR contractor and a Department of Transportation rep. About 60 people attended.
Dan Schack of Sam Schwartz Engineering led off with the PowerPoint description of changes already announced, changes focused on the north and west edges of the project site. Attendees were far more interested in other issues.
Meeting host Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association repeated the results of a survey of illegal parking around the site done with the help of Transportation Alternatives. Of 87 cars, all but four were parked illegally. Among the rest, twelve had some sort of construction gear. Others, including fire and police offers, had either phony placards or had parked improperly even with the placard
Arana Hankin, Director, Atlantic Yards Project for the ESDC, said she's spoken to the local precinct at least five times and Forest City at least ten times. The issue of construction workers, she said, "we've tried to solve."
As for police and fire, she noted that the arena site sits at the confluence of three precincts, and an emergency services plan must be established, with one precinct taking jurisdiction. "When that happens, illegal parking will be enforced," she said.
"I totally understand the nervousness," said Forest City executive Jane Marshall. "We are concentrating on a very significant effort to put together a demand management plan, and event-day management plan, security, safety, for pedestrians, vehicles, transit riders, and the third thing is loading dock, how things go in and out of the arena."
"That plan has to cover this area," she added. "It has to respond to this block's concerns and your blocks concerns, because you are the community it's in. We don't want a building that doesn't operate well and we don't want to upset the community."
She allowed that "there's going to be, probably, many uncomfortable moments," but plans will be amended. She couldn't provided an estimate for when plans would all emerge, though the demand management plan--with free MetroCards and other incentives not to drive--should arrive in six months.
"We ask construction workers to move," Hankin added. "Many illegally parked vehicles are police and fire… Whenever our [environmental] monitor is there, we ask them to move."
"It's very simple," Krashes said somewhat facetiously, suggesting the Department of Transportation's Chris Hrones, the three precincts, Hankin, and Forest City Ratner "just stand right in that intersection and work that out."
Delays from parking lot?
Won't it take a while to fill the 1100-space lot, causing congestion?
Marshall said the goal is to use reservoir spaces inside the block so no one is waiting on the street. Parking will be pre-paid, and license plates will be read, so, there's no money changing hands. "We understand it's our obligation to make this work," she said.
"Has anyone analyzed long it's going to take for 1100 cars to come in, discharge passengers, and have everyone walk to the arena?" asked gallery owner Jimmy Greenfield later in the meeting.
"I don't have anything I can say to you right now," responded Marshall.
Hankin said it was all part of the operational plan being developed.
"How are you going to make it all work?" Greenfield asked. The failure to provide assurances is the "reason's there's such distrust," he said. "What if nothing works? What is the scenario then?" What is the worst-case scenario?"
"I don't think the situation will ever be perfect, unfortunately," Hankin responded.
"Living in Brooklyn is not perfect, but we all make do," Greenfield responded. "What is the worst case? Be honest."
"People who live on Dean Street and Carlton are going to be inconvenienced," Hankin said, noting there would be "a lot of traffic and a lot of pedestrians… We're trying to mitigate as best we can." The issue, she noted, was analyzed in the EIS [environmental impact statement].
Residential permit parking
What about residential permit parking (RPP), which would limit spaces to locals?
The DOT's Hrones acknowledged that RPP has been proposed. "It's more complicated than people think," he said. "Basically, we are prepared to look at residential permit parking in the context of the arena, but I don't want anybody to get the impression it's a done deal.
He said complications involve accommodations for non-resident employees and businesses. RPP would require state legislation.
Will traffic signals be equipped with countdown timers?
Hrones said pedestrian countdown clocks are scheduled for Atlantic, Flatbush, and Fourth avenues.
One resident, who pointed out that increased traffic would decrease air quality, asked what's being planned in terms of trees and green space.
There will be street trees on Atlantic Avenue, said Marshall, but "not that many on Flatbush… The rest of these sidewalks are just being built out, not being landscaped."
Could they be?
"Not before the arena opens," Marshall responded. "It's very complex plan."
Marshall added that "air quality was analyzed in the FEIS" and that "we are doing, ultimately, eight acres of open space." And while the arena block won't have open space, it will have a plaza area.
Krashes commented, "I think it's important to say the open space you referred is--"
"In Phase 2," Marshall chimed in.
"- is in Phase 2, there's a 25-year timeline," Krashes continued.
"That's not what" we plan, Marshall interjected.
"--in 2012, you guys can actually leave the second phase," Krashes continued. [Forest City would have to forfeit an $86 million letter of credit for the new railyard.]
"Peter, we're not deserting the project," Marshall said with exasperation.
Krashes asked about landscaping in the surface parking lot.
Marshall said the lot would be set back four feet from the sidewalk, so there's a buffered landscaped zone."
"How about inside the parking lot?" Krashes asked.
"No," responded Marshall. "There's no room. There's no room."
Krashes pointed out that recent city regulations require landscaping in parking lots.
"--and we overrode zoning," Marshall responded.
Actually, the state overrode zoning on behalf of Forest City Ratner.
"I know you passionately believe the environmental analysis studied everything," Krashes said, adding that not everything was in the EIS, and some things are wrong.
Regarding mitigations, he asked, was Sam Schwartz asked to look at sidewalks and pedestrians at the eastern end of the project?
"No," said Marshall, indicating that the contractor was implementing what DOT and ESDC directed.
Krashes said the ESDC assumptions deserve tweaking because the 2006 analysis was wrong and the construction timetable had changed.
Rachel Shatz, the ESDC's Director of Planning and Environmental Review, said the EIS laid out the widths of sidewalks and streets, "before having the benefits of an actual survey." If field conditions are different, "that's when you have opportunity to make adjustments."
Krashes said that the sidewalks between Block 1129 and the arena on Dean and Pacific Streets are substantially smaller than described in the Final EIS.
"We can look at the material that you have," Hankin said.
"Hang on a second," Krashes said. "This is very obvious… there's been articles."
"Our goal is to improve the situation," Hankin said. "If you feel sidewalk widths are not wide enough--"
"--the sidewalk widths are not wide enough," Krashes continued.
"--bring it to our attention," Hankin added. "Our goal is to resolve problem… This is first time I've heard these complaints."
Krashes read a definition of effective sidewalk width, which is calculated by taking total width, subtracting obstacle width and a 1-foot to 1.5-foot buffer. While the sidewalk on Dean Street is described as having a 10.5-foot effective width, as I've written, in places it narrows to six feet.
"The goal is to improve the conditions for the residents," Hankin responded a little testily. "The goal is not to mitigate every little thing."
Construction worker lot
Where's Forest City's parking lot for construction workers?
The parking lot is on Block 1129, Shatz replied, and up until a certain threshold, "there was assumed to be parking available in the neighborhood."
Rumbles of criticism came from the audience.
While officials say construction workers aren't parking in the neighborhood, they are doing so, said Wayne Bailey.
The parking analysis said there was available space, Shatz responded.
The number of workers, Marshall said, has not triggered the requirement to provide worker parking.
The Response to Comments in the Final EIS stated:
The project sponsors do not intend to promote parking for construction workers. Extensive research was undertaken for the DEIS to estimate the likely travel patterns and characteristics of construction workers throughout the construction period. This research concluded that a substantial number of construction workers would likely travel via auto, irrespective of the abundance of transit options in the area and the costs associated with driving. To avoid overtaxing nearby on- and off-street facilities, the project sponsors would provide on-site (southern half of Block 1129) parking for construction workers at a fee that is comparable to other parking lots/garages in the area. By charging a fee and also limiting its parking capacity only to accommodate the anticipated demand, the on-site parking facility would help in minimizing the number of construction worker vehicles circulating for on-street parking in the area, while at the same time not encouraging the use of private automobiles as the means of travel to the project site.
One audience member noted that the "community has been asked to accommodate parking and driving." and suggested "we should be thinking completely out of the box." Why not make Pacific Street a greenway?
Several people clapped.
Another asked about the impact of Dean Street traffic, including arena drop-off, on the Dean Street bike lane.
It's something to address in demand management, Marshall said.
One resident suggested there would be a problem if property owners are ticketed by the Department of Sanitation for garbage put out by arena-goers.
He suggested a moratorium on ticketing individual properties.
Hankin said it was a "great idea." Marshall said "those issues will be part of the arena operating plan."
What happens next?
Hankin said officials would talk about suggestions that were made at the meeting and respond in writing.
Prompted by Krashes, most people present said they preferred an in-person meeting. "When you hear people directly, it's really more effective," he said.
"It's much more helpful if I receive complaints, questions, suggestions directly from the community, as opposed to being thrown a thousand suggestions one evening," responded Hankin.
One audience member suggested that questions could be lost in paperwork
"It would be helpful to have these handouts before the meeting," said Hankin, referring to issues raised.
Krashes said he'd passed on the same questions at the meeting earlier this month at Borough Hall.
"There isn't a sense there's transparency, accountability, and responsiveness," he said.
Krashes noted that he's gotten the impression that FCR/ESDC think he's the only one who's bringing up such issues, but the block association has held more than 150 meetings.
"I was not satisfied with answer about trees and green space," added one attendee, who noted that "the country is facing a climate crisis… We're asked to make a huge sacrifice… where's the high bar? maybe then there'll be something good… because I don't see anything good."
There were vigorous claps.
Krashes said it was good to have a meeting with the ESDC. He noted the ombudsman wasn't present.
Hankin said a replacement is being sought "as soon as possible."
"It would be an incredible sign or gesture if you move your office to Brooklyn," Krashes said. "Why not consider that?"
"Because I have other responsibilities," Hankin responded.
Forest City in violation?
How often, Krashes asked FCR's Brigitte LaBonte, is she on site? (She serves as the Community Liaison.)
"At least once a week," she responded, adding that staffers talk every day about onsite conditions.
The Carlton Avenue Block Association's Tom Boast read from the 2009 Amended Memorandum of Environmental Commitments (embedded below), which indicates the requirement for an on-site construction coordinator:
8. FCRC shall maintain an on-site construction coordinator to function as a liaison between FCRC and the community with respect to construction-related issues. The coordinator shall be available to consider specific concerns raised by the community with respect to the construction issues and seek to resolve such concerns.Krashes pointed to Shatz. Boast, he said, had "just cited… an on-site community liaison." (Actually, a construction coordinator is not the same title, but they seem to have the same function.)
"Brigitte said she's here one or two days a week," Krashes continued. "So, Rachel, what about this disparity between what's described… at the last District Service Cabinet meeting, you said it was a contractual obligation.... So, the fact that there's not a community liaison on site on a regular basis, just one or two days a week, does that meet that contractual obligation?"
"They're in violation," Shatz said, in a matter-of-fact manner.
"They are in violation, huh," Krashes repeated. "So this has been going on for a while."
ESDC's murky response
The meeting ended without an explanation of what that exactly means. I followed up with the ESDC at 10:04 am, asking for any clarification of the statement, as well as what will be done to get FCR out of violation.
ESDC spokeswoman Elizabeth Mitchell responded at 3:06 pm:
There is a comprehensive program in place to liaise with the community. Forest City Ratner has as full time employees an Overall Environmental Monitor (OEM) and two engineers who oversee the responsibilities of the Memorandum of Environmental Commitments (MEC). In addition, ESD has HDR and STV who are a consistent presence on the site and report back to us on a regular basis so that we know when there are construction or community issues. Arana Hankin, Director, Atlantic Yards Project, is available and accessible to hear any community concerns, and Empire State Development has a phone number and email address that has been advertised widely for this purpose. Therefore, Forest City Ratner’s Community Liaison is one important part of a larger oversight program.
I'm not sure if any of those positions qualifies as "maintain[ing] an on-site construction coordinator," however.
Amended Memorandum of Environmental Commitments for The