Friday, September 23, 2011

At the AY District Service Cabinet meeting: hints of negotiations over modular plan, the need for costly after-hours work to keep up, and a month-long "dentist's appointment" to endure noisy night work

Yesterday's bi-monthly Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting, an interagency working group involving officials representing areas around the project site, covered a lot of ground.

What was hinted at--notably, Forest City Ratner's (FCR) plans for modular construction--may have been more important than what was established.

A summary of the high points of the meeting, held at Brooklyn Borough Hall:
  • FCR is planning negotiations with labor officials over plans for modular construction
  • The developer is pitching modular as good for the city because it could hasten more affordable housing, as well as cause less disruption at a construction site
  • FCR is quick to assert the number of union jobs would be the same--though not to acknowledge that labor costs and salaries would drop
  • Hurricane Irene caused delays at the project site, especially at the railyard
  • After-hours work is needed to maintain the schedule 
  • Noisy overnight road work is required by the city, but will be over in a month, like a "dentist's appointment," in the words of one FCR executive
  • Changes in the road network have mostly worked out, though congestion remains on Third Avenue and some on Fourth Avenue
  • Council Member Letitia James proposed to split the cost with FCR for new trash cans for residences in Fort Greene concerned about rodents
  • Illegal worker parking has mostly been stymied, though no one wants to talk about improper parking by police officers
  • Forest City has provided sufficient off-street parking spaces, according to the state agency overseeing the project, Empire State Development (ESD)
  • A technical memo regarding shrinking sidewalk space on the arena block has been produced by ESD but has not yet been made public
  • James still would like to see a transportation working group to address Atlantic Yards issues
After-hours work

Forest City Ratner executive Marshall noted that Forest City Ratner has added a Sunday shift to part of the Long Island Rail Road section of the project, “for approximately three months.” The work is located in the below-grade portion of the railyard, between Sixth and Vanderbilt avenues, and Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street, toward the northern end.

FCR executive Bob Sanna, not so precisely, cited a six-day schedule throughout the railyard; on Saturdays, he noted, the work starts and ends an hour later than weekday work: 7:30 am to 5:30 pm. (The schedule now includes Sundays for part of the railyard.)

“We will continue to work that six-day program through the opening of the Carlton Avenue Bridge”--which must be reopened by the time the arena opens--”or if we feel our schedule permits us, we will hold back,” he said.

Why is it necessary to go six days, asked James.

Sanna said they were trying to meet the schedule. (The arena is said to be ahead, and the transit connection on schedule, though the pace of both has slowed--and that was before Hurricane Irene in late August.)

Why can’t they simply add an extra hour during the weekday, James asked. “Residents tell me work stops at 3.”

“Our productivity levels will naturally go down,” Sanna said, adding that five additional hours over a five-day week wouldn’t necessarily get the work done that’s being done on Saturday. He also said daylight would be declining.

Given that the wage rate on Saturdays and Sundays is significantly different, Sanna said, if simply adding five hours a week would eliminate weekend work, they’d do that.

(The closure of the bridge was supposed to last two years, but looks to last four-an-a-half years.)

James asked if they lost time as a result of Hurricane Irene.

Sanna said yes, pointing to the railyard work primarily, given the under-grade location.

On the arena site, he said, they lost about three days--two beforehand and one after, given the need to secure the site. One or two days, he said, over a 24-month schedule, “aren't necessarily significant.”

First tower timing

Marshall gave a fairly vague update on the first residential tower, which should have 400 units, half subsidized to be affordable to low-, moderate-, and middle-income households, with designs by SHoP, the firm that redid the arena exterior.

“We continue to be hard at work,” she said, “working with ESDC on compliance with the Design Guidelines.... Once we achieve that milestone, we would release that design.”

Marshall maintained that FCR is pursuing two alternatives: a conventional and a modular build. (The first building permit hints at a conventional building.)

“We are costing out and doing our due diligence,” she said. “We hope to have something to report by the end of the year, and have the first residential building, in construction by the beginning of the year.”

At the July cabinet meeting, FCR executive MaryAnne Gilmartin was somewhat more firm: “We expect to decide on our construction approach in the coming months, and we anticipate a groundbreaking by year end."

The modular issue

Would that first tower be modular? “That's complicated,” replied Marshall, saying it “requires a buy-in... of many sectors.” (Translation: labor unions.)

That “may or may not be achievable with B2,” she said, then offering a preview of the argument
FCR surely will make, that it could solve the affordable housing issue: it “ought to be explored for the city of New York, for affordable housing.”

“If you do modular, there will be a loss of jobs,” James said.

“We actually don't know that that's accurate,” Marshall countered somewhat testily. “You shouldn't assume that that would happen-- there could be different jobs, not necessarily fewer.”

(What she didn’t say is that labor costs would go down significantly, because unionized factory jobs pay far less than on-site union jobs.)

“We are examining all the iterations of how that is different,” she added, “where the jobs are, how fast it gets built... We want to talk with everybody about all of that, but we don't want that to necessarily delay B2.”

James said she supported affordable housing and union jobs, “so it's really critically important that we try to produce as many jobs [as promised]. This is what the union has informed me--it would be a loss of union jobs.”

“Forest City’s approach is it's all union jobs,” Marshall replied. “There's no loss of union jobs, whether it's modular or traditional.”

Sanna added another carrot: under modular construction, which is faster, “some of the community disruption issues are significantly mitigated.”

Too soon to say

However, Sanna said it was premature to have a conversation now, indicating that he had meetings scheduled with Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, an umbrella group for construction unions, who has previously expressed dismay at the idea of modular construction.

Who’s deciding modular vs. traditional, asked Council Member Stephen Levin. (He and James were the only elected officials present, and James has long taken the lead in raising questions.)

“We are keeping the state and the city apprised of the timeline,” Marshall said. “We certainly would be in the decision-making seat, but there are outside factors, like unions, city, and state... and we we really are, in way, doing a research and development project, we've been doing it for the last year.”

When will that decision on the construction style be announced, Levin asked.

Likely when the plan for the building is announced, he was told.

“Is it a cost thing?” Levin asked. “You're going to go with the cheaper option?”

“There are many factors,” Marshall replied, “but obviously, managing costs ... is always an issue.”

Is there a difference in quality, Levin asked.

No, said Marshall. Modular building today offers “a lot of flexibility and the architects are really excited about it.”

Levin asked if there’d be a dialogue when the project is presented to the public.

“We always have a dialogue,” Marshall responded, deflecting the question.

What if the public says they don’t like a modular building, he asked.

Sanna continued to deflect the question, saying that either technique would produce the same esthetic. He added that modular also can lead to a higher-quality building, since rain can affect an in-construction building

James asked if the choice of building style depended on the amount of subsidies.

“I don't think so,” Marshall replied. “We are approaching the city to get the standard subsidies.” (Forest City has asked for--and been denied--increased subsidies.)

Safety issues

Jim Vogel, a representative of state Senator Velmanette Montgomery, pointed to the elephant in the room: the issue of safety. What the Senator is really concerned about, he said, is that “this would be tallest modular building in history.” He asked if FCR was relying on computer testing, or building structural models.

“We can't do a 30-story mockup,” Sanna replied, not unreasonably, but the firm will do “significant testing,” working with the engineering firm Arup. “All our submissions would be made to the buildings department.”

He said FCR has hired experts at the University of Western Ontario to do a wind analysis--which, by the way, was never part of the state environmental review, though an analysis was conducted.

Noise complaints

Marshall acknowledged that FCR had received “quite a few” noise complaints from around the area of that Fourth/Flatbush/Atlantic intersection.

Work under the street, including relocation of utilites, requires lanes to be shut down, which is required to be done at night. And, she said, FCR must be finished by the end of October, so it doesn’t interfere with the New York City Marathon in early November.

“The bad news is that there will still be some noisy work ongoing, and the good news is it will be over, just like a dentist’s appointment, by the end of October,” Marshall said, describing what local residents might consider a very protracted appointment.

Traffic changes

Marshall described the first phase of offsite traffic mitigations, including the elimination of northbound traffic on Fourth Avenue between Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, and the shifting of Pacific Street to one-way eastbound.

Chris Hrones of the Department of Transportation offered preliminary observations. “[Traffic on] Flatbush immediately got better,” given the diminished amount of feeder traffic.

While initially “there was definitely an adjustment period” on Third and Fourth avenues, ‘that's settled down a bit,” he said. “Particularly Fourth Avenue seems to be back more or less to what it was before.”

On Third Avenue, however, “there continues to be some local congestion,” Hrones said, which may be mitigated by future changes in signal timing.

“What we're seeing is most vehicles are using sort of the most obvious path,” he said, “which is making a left on Atlantic and a right onto Third Avenue and proceeding north. That's the area that has the most impacts.”

Some vehicles now in a right-turn only lane going north on Fourth, he said, actually aim to go left, “so we see people trying to merge, or actually making a left turn from the right-turn lane.” So DOT will make one northbound lane approaching Pacific Street on Fourth Avenue serve both as a through-lane and a right-turn lane.

Robert Perris, District Manager of Community Board 2, commented, “I find that traffic is considerably backed up from Fourth Avenue south.” He suggested that the sidewalk on the east side of Fourth might be widened. Hrones said DOT would consider it.

A new signal on Carlton

James, citing a “terrible accident in Prospect Heights” involving a dollar van, asked if DOT was making any changes to prevent such drivers seeking shortcuts to leave Flatbush.

Hrones said a new signal at Carlton Avenue and Park Place, replacing a stop sign for northbound traffic, should be installed “in the next few weeks” and will be timed parallel with the light on Flatbush, as a deterrent.

Rodent update

Regarding rodent problems, Forest City Ratner again acknowledged it had needed to do more, though it didn’t say it had done anything wrong.

A Forest City Ratner representative, Adam Schwartz, explained that the rodent control procedures “as mandated by the FEIS [Finale Environmental Impact Statement]... were not the highest possible standard.” Thus, after hiring a new firm, Colony Pest Management, they brought in “what was a real best-practice standard,” involving weekly inspections and identification of roosting locations.

As far as I can tell, Chapter 17, Construction Impacts, of the FEIS, did not mandate any particular standard, just “a professional abater.” So perhaps the key was not the loose strictures of the FEIS but Forest City Ratner’s selection of that professional. The chapter stated:
RODENT CONTROL
Construction contracts would include provisions for a rodent (mouse and rat) control program. Prior to the start of construction, the contractor would engage the services of a professional abater who would survey and bait the appropriate areas and provide for proper site sanitation. During the construction phase, as necessary, the contractor would carry out a maintenance program. Coordination would be maintained with appropriate public agencies. Only EPA- and NYSDEC-registered rodenticides would be permitted, and the contractor would be required to perform rodent control programs in a manner that avoids hazards to persons, domestic animals, and non-target wildlife.
Department of Health representative Rick Simeone said two site assessments found “very little evidence” but “they may have moved out.” He said DOH had identified three residential buildings on Dean Street between Sixth and Carlton avenues as “hot spots,” where the city has installed bait boxes and is monitoring weekly.

The catchbasins on Fourth Avenue and Pacific Street, above the subway, he said, “were very infested” and thus baited. Nearby, the DOH has done emergency baiting at both a church on the west side of Fourth Avenue and the library branch on the east side--but in both cases aims to work directly with the property owners.

More trash cans?

Forest City distributed hundreds of rodent-proof trash cans to residences limited essentially to an area just south of the project footprint. James reminded the group that numerous residents just north of the footprint, across wider Atlantic Avenue, also feel besieged by rats.

Saying she’d pay for half the cost out of her office budget, James said she was “asking Forest City Ratner to meet me halfway.”

She got a noncommittal response from Marshall, who in May had expressed concern about a slippery slope in which the developer was blamed for rats in a wide area of Brooklyn. “Well, we’re happy to talk with you about that,” Marshall said.

Illegal parking

Meeting moderator Arana Hankin, Director, Atlantic Yards Project, for ESD, briefly brought up illegal parking. She praised Inspector John Cosgrove of Brooklyn North, who was present, for having been “immensely helpful.” She said “there have been a few instances in the past few weeks,” and the police have been “extremely responsive, very cooperative.”

“Unless there's any other questions on this topic, we can move on,” she said, in which sounded like a desire not to linger on the issue. After all, police officers themselves also contribute to illegal parking--placards don’t let them park anywhere--and no one has been able to crack down on that one.

Jim Vogel, representing state Senator Velmanette Montgomery, said the office had received numerous questions about an apparent multilevel parking facility planned.

“It's not on the agenda,” Hankin said, putting the issue off. Noting that the issue was tied to demand management strategies, she noted that details about the latter should be shared “with the community by end of the year.”

Worker parking

At the July meeting, the question was raised--as it had been at a community meeting in June--about what number of workers triggers FCR's obligation to provide a worker parking lot? Hankin said In July she'd provide the figure at a later juncture.)

According to the state’s analysis, presented yesterday by ESD planner Rachel Shatz, 55% of workers arrive by car, with 1.9 workers per car. So 1000 workers would require 289 spaces. There are between 150-200 on-street parking spaces in the area, and workers are expected to use all available on-street parking before looking at the off-street, paid option.

So a minimum number of workers on a shift would trigger the requirement, she said.

If 150 onstreet parking spaces were assumed, offstreet parking would have to be provided once 518 workers arrived for a given shift. If 175 spaces were assumed, the trigger would be 605 workers. If 200 spaces were assumed, the trigger would be 691 workers.

“We've estimated that there are currently 520 workers on a given shift,” Shatz said. (Unlike in previous meetings, Forest City did not provide any worker numbers. In July, the figure was 430 workers.)

As of now, Shatz said, Forest City provides 40 spaces on Block 1129, the southeast block. Another 26-30 spaces would be provided, according to Marshall, within a month.

So, Shatz concluded, “they're providing sufficient parking now.”

I couldn't find Shatz's calculations in Chapter 17, Construction Impacts, of the FEIS, which had this overview:
Accounting for parking spaces displaced by the project during its construction, alternate-side street-cleaning regulations, and reasonable walking distance to available meter spots, there would be potentially 150 to 200 on-street spaces available for construction worker parking with 1⁄4 mile of the project site.
Truck routes

FCR’s Schwartz said that, over the past few months, the developer has taken steps to improve issues of routing, queueing, and idling. (Numerous complaints and violations have been reported by Atlantic Yards Watch.)

The primary step he reported--as previously noted by Atlantic Yards Watch--has been a color-coded system for truck deliveries.

“They were approaching the entrance gates before the gates were prepared,” he said. Now those trucks are not allowed to leave the holding area on Pacific Street between Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues until the gate is ready to receive them. He called the step “very effective.”

Also, after numerous reports of trucks leaving the work site with uncovered contents, security guards must now check the trucks to make sure that covers are closed. “It's really had a significant impact,” he said.

“We've been working with Forest City very closely,” Hankin said. “We feel very comfortable the situation really has improved significantly over the past month or so.”

Note that Hankin, interviewed in August, was similarly optimistic, only to see a spate of incidents--perhaps now precluded by better procedures.

Affordable units

Sitting at the table, somewhat unusually, was Walter Mosley, male District Leader for the 57th Assembly District, who is non-governmental elected Democratic Party officer. (Presumably if all the District Leaders sat at the cabinet table it would be a very large table.)

Mosley, a friend and supporter of Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries--and rumored to be a candidate for Jeffries’ seat if the Assemblyman runs for Congress--asked about applications for the affordable housing units.

Marshall, misspeaking, said people could apply now and forward their names to the Community Liaison Officer. She later clarified to say that’s just to get on a mailing list. Only when the building proceeds would the city run a lottery.

Bollard hearing coming

Hrones said that DOT in early October would hold a public hearing on the planned bollards for the arena block. he said comments would be accepted until at least five days aftger the hearing. However, he said he didn't know the date for the hearing. (It's October 5.)

Because the drawing had to be reissued, the comment period was extended.

The shrinking sidewalk

ESD has ordered a technical memo that responds to the narrowing of the Atlantic Avenue sidewalk between the arena and Sixth Avenue and describes the level of pedestrian service.

James asked to see a copy.

“Yes, [the sidewalk] is narrower than we said it would be in the EIS, because we're still in an
interim state, we’re in construction,” Shatz said, summarizing the memo. She said it was up to DOT to make the memo public.

“I suspect it's something that will be available” at the public hearing, Hrones said, “but if we can make it available before, we'll do it.”

The bollard plan has received support from both Community Board 2 and the Community Board 6 Transportation Committee.

Another working group

James said that the ESDC website “talks about a transportation working group” and asked for the status of that initiative.

Hankin pointed out that the announcement has been off the website for at least a year.

She said the district cabinet--an interagency working group spurred by James and the Borough President’s office--can focus on transportation issues as needed

James said she thought one group should be dedicated to transportation and traffic. Hankin said she’d look into it but thought they should try to address them “with this body first.”

As it happens, in May 2007, the state announced both an interagency working group and a
transportation working group.

Where’s the new ESDC staffer?

Three months after the opening for a Manager–Community & Government Relations--essentially the successor to not-quite-ombudsman Forrest Taylor--was posted, no hire has been announced, and Hankin didn’t mention it yesterday.

She had in August expressed hope that a hire would be completed “soon.”

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