Thursday, July 14, 2011

Fighting rat problem around AY site, Forest City agrees to provide garbage cans to residents; experts leave impression problem is more the fault of community than construction, but "it's always interconnected"

Bending from its previous posture that it would not take steps to abate the "rat tsunami" beyond the Atlantic Yards construction site, developer Forest City Ratner today announced it would provide vouchers to residents in the neighborhood to ensure they have sturdy garbage cans to contain waste.

The initiative would be part of a multi-faceted program that officials agree is needed to address rats, a program welcomed by City Council Member Letitia James and other community members.

FCR's MaryAnne Gilmartin, speaking at the bi-monthly Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting at Borough Hall, said it could take a week to provide details on the scope of the program, but said it would not extend to commercial businesses.

Forest City's Bob Sanna added that 16 new trash receptacles would be placed in the construction site, for food waste only, not construction debris, something unique in his experience. Four workers have been added to empty the cans and address food-related waste, including a "perimeter sweep immediately outside the gate."

Clearly the public (and press) attention, the involvement of multiple agencies, and a focus by Arana Hankin, Director, Atlantic Yards Project for the Empire State Development Corporation, has produced progress--even as a court decision yesterday suggested that Hankin's agency had done the developer's bidding.

More the fault of AY, or the neighborhood?

Unresolved was the cause of the rat problems. City officials who'd recently done a walk-through of the construction site and surrounding blocks suggested that the latter had far more uncovered garbage that would attract rats--essentially leaving the impression it was more the fault of the community than of Forest City Ratner.

During the meeting, James honed in on the issue: "As a result of construction and demolition, have their nests been sufficiently disturbed they left the location?"

"It's a very good question," responded Bob Corrigan, an internationally renowned rodentologist who works for the city. He said there was no clear answer, but the results had to be examined on a case by case basis. Construction work is known to disperse rats, but doesn't necessarily do so. "Is it possible? Yes."

Looking at the neighborhood

Corrigan took a walk-through earlier this week and provided several observations. "You have to look at rats as a community wide issue," he said, suggesting that the causes are always interconnected, including commercial food trash, residential food trash, litter on construction sites, and associated with sidewalks.

"Litter baskets are absolutely critical," he said. (Is it possible to empty them more often, a Sanitation Department rep was asked. That could encourage dumping of residential waste, he said.)

As for the construction site, Corrigan said, "we could not find any hot spots. Two out of three [segments] had very high rates of sanitation pickup."

"Nowhere on the construction site did we find they were serving as rat reservoirs," he said. That's important, he added, because sometimes that does happen.

No one disputed Corrigan's report of his visit, but Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association later suggested that, based on his observations (and photos taken last month), that Forest City Ratner had only recently stepped up its efforts to clean the site.

Rick Simeone of the Department of Health, who attended a meeting on Dean Street last month to hear rat complaints, agreed "we have some hot spots" in the neighborhood. "Is it at the levels told to me at that meeting? I don't think so."

"The area has changed," he said, and now has a lot of commercial establishments,

"What Bobby [Corrigan] and I noticed was a tremendous amount of trash throughout the neighborhood," citing trash in front of private homes, wastebaskets with no tops and "a few active catchbasins that we will address and we will bait."

Krashes later suggested that Prospect Heights was no worse than many neighborhoods in the city, and reiterated that residents have seen a proliferation only after the project.

A comprehensive solution

Forest City Ratner consultant Ed Sheehan, director of quality assurance for Colony Pest Management, said the solution involves Integrated Pest Management, involving efforts to keep food from rats--securing garbage, not putting out food for cats--and securing bait stations.

"It's a puzzle, and this will unravel the puzzle," he said, "but we need cooperation from all parties: the neighborhood, Atlantic Yards, and city agencies." For example, he identified the closed Bergen Tile building at Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue--across from the construction site--as a source of problems.

"Using Colony," Gilmartin said, "Forest City is committed to working through a plan not only specific for site but also for offsite areas identified by the team."

Gilmartin noted that Colony recommended metal cans, but agreed "this is a balancing act," as sturdy rubber cans could be nearly as effective and cause less noise when moved during early morning hours.

The offer of garbage cans, she said, is "an overture and a gesture that recognizes that it's going to require work by many."

"I thank you for the vouchers," James said to Gilmartin. "To what extent are baiting stations available to the community?"

"We do not have a voucher program for baiting," Gilmartin replied crisply.

More "asks"

Engine Company 219 on Dean Street, James said, has experienced an infestation of large rats. She said the captain there has requested a dumpster. She asked a representation from the Department of Sanitation for a dumpster.

"We don't have dumpsters to hand out," she was told.

She asked some Fire Department representatives from the central office if a dumpster could be provided.

They said they didn't know.

James said she would have provided a dumpster out of her own budget had she been asked in time.

"I'm asking Forest City Ratner to consider purchase of a dumpster," James continued.

Gilmartin neither nodded nor smiled.

Problems persist

Several problems persist. One, unmentioned at today's session but cited at the meeting last month, is rats attracted to garbage left by workers getting meals at restaurants near Bergen Street and Flatbush Avenue near Sixth Avenue, a block or so south of the project site at Dean Street and Sixth Avenue.

At the meeting, both James and Robert Perris, District Manager of Community Board 2, urged officials not to ignore the rat problem beyond Prospect Heights, in Fort Greene.

James said she'd seen a "very disgusting video" filmed in Atlantic Terminal public housing, which showed rodents in hallways and in the parking lot. "They were large, and it was scary."

Summing up

Overall, participants agreed significant progress had been made. "I've never heard such a comprehensive waste management onsite program described," said Craig Hammerman, District Manager of Community Board 6.

"I wanted to commend Forest City Ratner and the agencies and certainly ESD for pulling this together, and want to echo the importance of educating the community," Hammerman said.

As for neglectful owners of abandoned properties, he said, "I think the agencies should come out, full guns blaring, if they choose not to be cooperative."

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