Saturday, November 05, 2011

Questions that could have been asked at the AY District Service Cabinet meeting about delays, oversight, responsibility

The bi-monthly Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting, most recently held November 3, offers less than 90 minutes for involved agencies, developer Forest City Ratner, and (a few) elected and Community Board officials to address specific and general issues.

And while there some little-promoted positive news--apparently the state, city, and FCR had figured out a way to reduce some jackhammering noise--several issues trailed off into obfuscation or simply were not questioned.

Thus, those overseeing the project still avoid accountability.

And those representing the public simply aren't doing enough.

Yes, Council Member Letitia James does by far the most, but she could drill down more. State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Council Member Steve Levin did ask a few question--and at least they showed up--but were less effective.

Meanwhile, other officials presumably interested in the project and its impacts--Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and his colleagues Jim Brennan and Joan Millman; Council Member Brad Lander, state Senator Eric Adams--didn't bother to show up. (Jeffries sent a staffer.)

It's in Jeffries' district, while Brennan oversees the Assembly's Corporations Committee. Sure, he's got other priorities--and probably doesn't want to tangle with all-powerful Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, an Atlantic Yards ally--but shouldn't Brennan want to see exactly how Empire State Development (aka Empire State Development Corporation) operates?

Below, my speculation on how the meeting might have proceeded had the questioners pressed further and had more time. All dialogue in italics is speculative.

The Independent Compliance Monitor

James asked Forest City if it would hire the Independent Compliance Monitor provided in the much-touted Community Benefits Agreement.

“Yes. I mean, the, um, all the matters in the CBA will be adhered to,” Forest City executive Jane Marshall replied, not all that firmly. “There’s an executive committee that has to decide when it wants to do an RFP for a Compliance Monitor.”

“When does that Executive Committee meet and where, and how often?” asked James.

“Typically--it’s usually typically every other month,” Marshall responded.

“And who chairs that?”

“Dee Adossa, from BEE [Brooklyn Endeavor Experience].”

“When was the last time they had a meeting?”

“I think it was actually four months ago, but that doesn't mean we don't communicate,” Marshall said.

“And so the compliance monitor will be hired when?” pressed James.

“When the executive committee decides,” responded Marshall.

"When will that happen?"

"When it decides."

"Can you bring Ms. Adossa to the next meeting?"

"We can ask."

"How much does the Independent Compliance Monitor cost Forest City Ratner?"

"It depends on what the executive committee decides."

"Doesn't the CBA cite an 'annual payment of up to $100,000'?"

"Yes, but that's 'up to.'"

"And wasn't there an RFP sent out in 2007?"

"I have heard that."

"So aren't you saving lots of money, and avoiding oversight, by not hiring a compliance monitor?"

"Those are your words, Council Member, not mine."

"I would like a written explanation of why an Independent Compliance Monitor has not been hired."

"Council Member, you have no jurisdiction."

"I'm asking as a courtesy."

"I can ask."

"C'mon, Jane. You control the CBA, essentially. Forest City pays those groups. If you don't provide an explanation, within the next two weeks, I'll just keep talking this up."

"We'll see what we can do."

The Carlton Avenue Bridge

James asked Chris Hrones of the Department of Transportation (DOT) if DOT was keeping track of the progress with the long-delayed bridge.

“Our bridges people are monitoring that project,” Hrones said, and looking at both the schedule and the work. Nobody followed up.

Is the bridge behind?

I'd have to check.

Do you have a completion date?

It has to open before the arena. Our web site says "summer 2012."

Can you give me a specific date?

I'll get back to you on that.


At another junction, Council Member Steve Levin asked, “Do we have a projected date of completion, and what happens if it's not open, what if you can't finish it by that time?”

“It is required to be open, and we are monitoring it very carefully,” replied FCR's Bob Sanna, who also referenced the DOT’s role. “So we're working very aggressively to ensure that it does open.” He didn't provide a specific completion date.

Levin continued: "What if it doesn’t?"

“We're not contemplating that it will not open,” said Sanna.

“In the world of capital construction, stuff gets delayed all the time, so I’m just wondering,” Levin said.

“That has not been our track record to date,” responded Sanna.

Can you give me a specific date?

We'll have to get back to you on that.

Please do.

And wasn't the bridge expected to take two years?

Well, that was in the environmental review.

What happened?

The project changed. Remember, as Jim Stuckey once said, "Projects change, markets change."

And if you end up working 24/7 to get that bridge done because you were too slow, who's going to bear the brunt of that? Neighbors.

We're doing our best.


Transit connection

Work on the transit connection associated with the arena, declared Sanna, was “moving extraordinarily well."

Nobody followed up.

Mr. Sanna, the latest report from the construction monitor to the bond trustee says the transit connection has been slowed, and was behind schedule as of a month ago.

That's what it said.

Is that true?

We say it's moving extraordinarily well.

I just am looking at this report and I have my doubts.

Who are you going to believe, me or your unreliable eyes?

At the next meeting, I'd like you to bring the consultant's report, and your response to it.


Security

Montgomery, who had sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo about the need for a security study, asked about security but saw her question answered by the Department of Transportation's Chris Hrones, who referenced the issue of bollards at the arena site.

There were representatives of city police and fire departments, but no one questioned them. Montgomery could have followed up.

You know I asked the Police Department for a copy of the security study.

We've heard that.

Can you provide that?

It's not our decision.

Do you understand why the public might be interested?

Yes.

We recognize that some information must be kept confidential. But the public needs confidence that, for example, streets will not be closed, as in Newark.

Streets will not be closed. We've said that.

Fine. We'd like to learn your rationale. Is the building in Brooklyn safer? Is Newark overreacting?

We'll get back to you.


Timing of first tower

“We still believe that, before the end of the year, we will be able to announce which way we’re going [with the first tower, aka B2] and show the the design to the public,” Marshall said. “That's our goal, consistent with our goal to break ground on B2 early next year.”

No one followed up. But they could have.

Consistent with your goal?

Yes, that's our goal.

Has it always been your goal?

It's been our goal for a while.


Didn't you earlier aim to release designs and start construction of B2 in the first quarter of 2011?

Well, yes, but projects change, markets change.


Arena operational plan

When will the operational plan for the arena, including the transit demand management plan, emerge? “I think we've always said the end of this year, the beginning of next year, which is still what we’re planning to do,” said Arana Hankin, Director, Atlantic Yards Project, for Empire State Development.

Didn't you say, in mid-June, 'approximately six months'?

Yes.

Well, mid-January is seven months.

It's still 'approximately.'

If this goes past mid-January I will be calling for a public hearing.


Additional infrastructure work

Forest City, we learned, is overseeing additional infrastructure work that must be completed before the arena opens.

“So the city appointed Forest City Ratner to oversee the construction of a water main which has nothing to do with Atlantic Yards?” James asked.

“We're a contractor,” Marshall said.

“Basically we’re providing the oversight,” FCR's Bob Sanna added. “So we competitively bid that.”

“Because you’re there?” asked James.

“I guess that’s why,” Sanna said, “Frankly, we initially objected to it... but DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] prevailed.”

“Are you getting a fee to supervise this?” James asked.

“I'm not sure,” Sanna replied.

You're not sure?

No, I don't have the paperwork.

You do this for free? Are you a charity?

We're a business. But I'd have to check.

Please do. My office welcomes your correspondence next week.


New ESD staffer

After the meeting, I asked Hankin if the agency was closer to hiring a promised Government & Community Relations Manager, essentially the successor to Forrest Taylor, who left in June.

“I’m pushing hard,” said Hankin, who in August sounded hopeful someone would be hired soon.

No one brought that up at the meeting.

Aren't you supposed to be hiring another staffer?

Yes, we're trying.

What's the hold-up?

I've been trying. You know that hiring at the state level sometimes moves slowly.

The lack of a staffer has consequences. Look how many people were complaining about noise. Look at Atlantic Yards Watch--there are still numerous complaints.

I know, I know.

Essentially that serves Forest City's interest.

Those are your words, not mine.

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