Skip to main content

A caution on the Gridlock Sam admiration society: the consultant still has to satisfy his clients; he and his client already have failed to deliver the transportation demand management plan promised for December

The New York Observer's Matt Chaban this week penned an interesting and admiring portrait of former government official, consultant, and all-around New Yorker "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, headlined May the Schwartz Be With You: Gridlock Sam Wants to Turn New York Traffic On Its Head—the Same Thing He’s Done for 40 Years.

Schwartz deserves attention for his not-quite-congestion-pricing plan, which would toll East River bridges, improve highways, add pedestrian bridges, and generally try to treat New Yorkers equitably while removing glaring inequities and their inevitable consequences.

And he has an intriguing history, growing up in cramped apartments in Brooklyn's Brownsville and Bensonhurst, becoming a student activist at Brooklyn College while driving a cab, gaining a transportation engineering degree at Penn, and, before getting a job in the Department of Traffic, driving a cab again. (He described "my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers," which may make him sentimentally disposed toward Atlantic Yards.)

During the 1980 transit strike, he banned cars carrying fewer than three passengers from Manhattan. He soon installed bike lanes. In 1982, at 34, he became traffic commissioner, rising to the transportation department. He became an academic, an engineer at another firm, and then formed Sam Schwartz Engineering in 1995. Writes Chaban:
More than his innovations on the streets, it was his savvy with public relations that has impressed many. “He had a way of taking these incredibly complex issues and ideas and explaining them to the average New Yorker,” current DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said. From coining the “gridlock” to straightforward street signage—“Don’t Even Think About Parking Here”—Mr, Schwartz has seduced drivers and pedestrians alike. But, his biggest seduction lies ahead.
That would be, understandably, the comprehensive transportation plan.

The AY seduction

However, unmentioned, Schwartz has no small seduction left for Brooklyn. On May 22, he and his colleagues will unveil--six months late--the long-promised Atlantic Yards Transportation Demand Management plan.

The general contours of the plan have been well-known, the details not so much. Only this month did we learn that there would be fewer than 550 surface parking spaces on Block 1129, the southeast block of the project site, but we don't know where, if at all, the spaces previously designated for HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) and suiteholder parking would go.

Yes, Schwartz is an able presenter. But he's already sacrificed some credibility. As I wrote 5/5/12, Schwartz, during a 6/4/11 Q&A (video) at a forum on Atlantic Yards traffic changes/mitigations, answered a question about bike parking by saying, "That's over the next six months when we come back to you figuring out how we're going to get people out of their cars."

At that point, the TDM plan was due in December 2011. They didn't "come back to you." The plan was delayed multiple times, for reasons obscure. Did Schwartz really underestimate the schedule by six months? Or was he hampered by his client?

The upshot is that, four months before the arena opens, there will be 30 days for public comment. That's too little time, as Council Member Steve Levin has observed, for public input.

And that's not even counting the emergency work Schwartz may have to do, developing a mitigation plan to control and alleviate the inevitable congestion if the Carlton Avenue Bridge, required to be open before the arena opens, is not finished.

Who's Schwartz serving?

Early in the Atlantic Yards process Schwartz told the 12/5/05 Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee, according to the meeting notes, "From a consultant’s perspective, you must satisfy your client, but you must maintain your objectivity."

That's not always simple. Already the objectivity of Schwartz's six-month prediction has been undermined.

Last June, Michael D. D. White, in his Noticing New York blog, reflected on the real strangeness of the Forest City Ratner/Empire State Development Corporation session on traffic 6/14/11, given that a private consultant hired by a private developer was explaining--at times not all too well--how public streets would be managed.

White wrote:
The Private Sector Without Sovereign Immunity
So this is what I am wondering: Although Forest City Ratner and Sam Schwartz as its engineering consultant may seem a lot like the government performing a government function, that is not what they are. Forest City Ratner and Sam Schwartz are private sector entities and however much they have intruded themselves into an assumption of what we would expect would be a government process they are no more actual government officials than a privately hired mall security guard.
Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee 12/5/05 Summary

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Forest City acknowledges unspecified delays in Pacific Park, cites $300 million "impairment" in project value; what about affordable housing pledge?

Updated Monday Nov. 7 am: Note follow-up coverage of stock price drop and investor conference call and pending questions.

Pacific Park Brooklyn is seriously delayed, Forest City Realty Trust said yesterday in a news release, which further acknowledged that the project has caused a $300 million impairment, or write-down of the asset, as the expected revenues no longer exceed the carrying cost.

The Cleveland-based developer, parent of Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner, which is a 30% investor in Pacific Park along with 70% partner/overseer Greenland USA, blamed the "significant impairment" on an oversupply of market-rate apartments, the uncertain fate of the 421-a tax break, and a continued increase in construction costs.

While the delay essentially confirms the obvious, given that two major buildings have not launched despite plans to do so, it raises significant questions about the future of the project, including:
if market-rate construction is delayed, will the affordable h…

Revising official figures, new report reveals Nets averaged just 11,622 home fans last season, Islanders drew 11,200 (and have option to leave in 2018)

The Brooklyn Nets drew an average of only 11,622 fans per home game in their most recent (and lousy) season, more than 23% below the announced official attendance figure, and little more than 65% of the Barclays Center's capacity.

The New York Islanders also drew some 19.4% below announced attendance, or 11,200 fans per home game.

The surprising numbers were disclosed in a consultant's report attached to the Preliminary Official Statement for the refinancing of some $462 million in tax-exempt bonds for the Barclays Center (plus another $20 million in taxable bonds). The refinancing should lower costs to Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the arena operating company, by and average of $3.4 million a year through 2044 in paying off arena construction.

According to official figures, the Brooklyn Nets attendance averaged 17,187 in the debut season, 2012-13, 17,251 in 2013-14, 17,037 in 2014-15, and 15,125 in the most recent season, 2015-16. For hoops, the arena holds 17,732.

But official…

At 550 Vanderbilt, big chunk of apartments pitched to Chinese buyers as "international units"

One key to sales at the 550 Vanderbilt condo is the connection to China, thanks to Shanghai-based developer Greenland Holdings.

It's the parent of Greenland USA, which as part of Greenland Forest City Partners owns 70% of Pacific Park (except 461 Dean and the arena).

And sales in China may help explain how the developer was able to claim early momentum.
"Since 550 Vanderbilt launched pre-sales in June [2015], more than 80 residences have gone into contract, representing over 30% of the building’s 278 total residences," the developer said in a 9/25/15 press release announcing the opening of a sales gallery in Brooklyn. "The strong response from the marketplace indicates the high level of demand for well-designed new luxury homes in Brooklyn..."

Maybe. Or maybe it just meant a decent initial pipeline to Chinese buyers.

As lawyer Jay Neveloff, who represents Forest City, told the Real Deal in 2015, a project involving a Chinese firm "creates a huge market for…

Is Barclays Center dumping the Islanders, or are they renegotiating? Evidence varies (bond doc, cash receipts); NHL attendance biggest variable

The Internet has been abuzz since Bloomberg's Scott Soshnick reported 1/30/17, using an overly conclusory headline, that Brooklyn’s Barclays Center Is Dumping the Islanders.

That would end an unusual arrangement in which the arena agrees to pay the team a fixed sum (minus certain expenses), in exchange for keeping tickets, suite, and sponsorship revenue.

The arena would earn more without the hockey team, according to Bloomberg, which cited “a financial projection shared with potential investors showed the Islanders won’t contribute any revenue after the 2018-19 season--a clear signal that the team won’t play there, the people said."

That "signal," however, is hardly definitive, as are the media leaks about a prospective new arena in Queens, as shown in the screenshot below from Newsday. Both sides are surely pushing for advantage, if not bluffing.

Consider: the arena and the Islanders can't even formally begin their opt-out talks until after this season. The disc…

Skanska says it "expected to assemble a properly designed modular building, not engage in an iterative R&D experiment"

On 12/10/16, I noted that FastCo.Design's Prefab's Moment of Reckoning article dialed back the gush on the 461 Dean modular tower compared to the publication's previous coverage.

Still, I noted that the article relied on developer Forest City Ratner and architect SHoP to put the best possible spin on what was clearly a failure. From the article: At the project's outset, it took the factory (managed by Skanska at the time) two to three weeks to build a module. By the end, under FCRC's management, the builders cut that down to six days. "The project took a little longer than expected and cost a little bit more than expected because we started the project with the wrong contractor," [Forest City's Adam] Greene says.Skanska jabs back
Well, Forest City's estranged partner Skanska later weighed in--not sure whether they weren't asked or just missed a deadline--and their article was updated 12/13/16. Here's Skanska's statement, which shows th…

Not just logistics: bypassing Brooklyn for DNC 2016 also saved on optics (role of Russian oligarch, Shanghai government)

Surely the logistical challenges of holding a national presidential nominating convention in Brooklyn were the main (and stated) reasons for the Democratic National Committee's choice of Philadelphia.

And, as I wrote in NY Slant, the huge security cordon in Philadelphia would have been impossible in Brooklyn.

But consider also the optics. As I wrote in my 1/21/15 op-ed in the Times arguing that the choice of Brooklyn was a bad idea:
The arena also raises ethically sticky questions for the Democrats. While the Barclays Center is owned primarily by Forest City Ratner, 45 percent of it is owned by the Russian billionaire Mikhail D. Prokhorov (who also owns 80 percent of the Brooklyn Nets). Mr. Prokhorov has a necessarily cordial relationship with Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — though he has been critical of Mr. Putin in the past, last year, at the Russian president’s request, he tried to transfer ownership of the Nets to one of his Moscow-based companies. An oligarch-owned a…