Thursday, May 03, 2012

ESD’s Adams: Surface parking lot spaces halved (concession to neighbors or reality?); governance entity possible (ditto); appeal unresolved in SEIS case; meeting on transportation plan set for 5/22, then 30 days for comments

In his second meeting with Atlantic Yards stakeholders in eight months, Kenneth Adams, CEO of Empire State Development (Corporation), the state agency overseeing the project, last night had some welcome news: the planned surface parking lot for the southeast block of the project, which was estimated to have up to 1,100 spaces, would have fewer than half that amount, obviating the need for noisy stackers that could compound gridlock.

(L-r.) Carlo Scissura, Arana Hankin, Ken Adams,
Justin Ginsburgh. Photo and set by Tracy Collins. 
The news was welcomed, albeit somewhat warily, by the two dozen people at Borough Hall, representing various neighborhood and merchant groups in the orbit of the Prospect Heights project.

While the lot, according to state documentation, could hold up to 1,100 spaces, and an application to the city Department of Buildings said 722 spaces, the genial Adams, a Brooklynite familiar with nearly all of the two dozen people in the room, said it would be under 550 spaces.

Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association called the result “good,” though he noted that the site, bounded by Carlton and Vanderbilt avenues and Dean and Pacific streets, could only accommodate about 520 surface spaces, according to calculations by local residents. “We've been expecting the number of 520 for some time.”

Map by Tracy Collins.
The lot is not exactly isolated in a blighted area; it's bookended by the Prospect Heights Historic District, with the Vanderbilt Yard to the north. (It's the southeast block of the project site at left.)

Praise, and dismay

Craig Hammerman, District Manager of Community Board 6, praised Adams for "talking about touchy subjects in a respectful manner." He said "I don't want to live in the past... but I have to believe if Ken Adams had been head of ESD [when Atlantic Yards was apprved] it probably wouldn't have been handled the way it had."

He did call for a more predictable public process, with more of a community partnership--and, as indicated below, Adams indicated his agency was bending on the issue of governance. Also, Carlo Scissura, special advisor to Borough President Marty Markowitz, said a "quality of life" committee is being established to address issues provoked by arena operations.

Krashes, a major contributor to the Atlantic Yards Watch initiative, expressed dismay about the lack of oversight regarding the project, for example, the ESD's failure to hire a community relations representative to succeed Forrest Taylor, who left in June 2011, and the lack of responsiveness regarding work at the Vanderbilt yard, which lasts until 3 am and can be quite noisy.

He noted the lack of response to findings that nearby sidewalks were smaller than officially measured, the loss of lay-by lanes planned for Sixth Avenue near the arena, and the plans, revealed after the project was approved, for a parking lot on the northeast corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue for television trucks, right next to houses.

Moreover, he pointed out, the bi-monthly Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meetings, which include involved agencies, have not addressed numerous issues raised by area residents. He said it was important to get arena managers in the same room with affected people.

Peter Krashes at right. Photo by Tracy Collins.
He asked if elected officials could be on an interagency task force set up regarding Atlantic Yards. ESD's Arana Hankin said no, and it wasn't her call.

"Just for the record, we would like to be on that committee," chimed in Rami Metal, an aide to Council Member Steve Levin.

"There isn't a lot of accountability over the long term," Krashes observed.

Coverage, attendees

Here's coverage of the parking issue in the New York Post. Video segments from the meeting is available at AYInfoNYC's YouTube channel.

Council Member Levin was the only elected official to attend. The meeting, which was organized by Council Member Letitia James's office with the help of Markowitz's office, also deaw staffers from the offices of James, Markowitz, and state Senator Velmanette Montgomery. No one from developer Forest City Ratner was present.

How will it work?

So, how can they manage with a smaller lot? It’s “based on the amount of public transportation, with existing spaces, and garages and surface lots, there's sufficient parking to serve the needs of the arena,” said Justin Ginsburgh, Adams’s chief of staff.

Without consideration of residential permit parking (RPP), which some but not all area residents believe necessary to limit arena-bound drivers seeking free street parking?

Yes, Ginsburgh replied.

Gib Veconi at left. Photo by Tracy Collins.
Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) commented, “As happy as we are to hear about the lower number of spaces, we’d appreciate your speaking to the governor about RPP.”

He said that the known provisions to encourage use of public transportation are all incentives, and such incentives are insufficient and must be complemented by disincentives.

Tom Boast of the PHNDC added that the state could authorize the city to enact a surcharge on parking in the arena district, as was done in Newark on the advice of consultant Sam Schwartz, who's now working for Forest City Ratner. "The state needs to be a leader to assist the city."

Krashes added noted that the cost of responding to arena-related problems would likely be borne by the city and "there's no structure to ensure that public costs are going to be put where they belong."

Time for input?

While work on the parking lot was supposed to start May 1, it instead will start May 15, limited to subsurface work to address drainage issues.

“It won't include things like setting up parking spaces and striping,” Adams said, adding that “arguably, the subsurface work for drainage has to happen anyway” hence the start before public input.

On May 22, at the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting in the morning, the long-delayed Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plan will be unveiled, and it will be discussed that night at a public meeting at Borough Hall. (Participating will be Forest City Ratner consultant Schwartz, as well as representatives from the Long Island Rail Road and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.)

After that, the ESD will accept comments for 30 days, and then respond to all of them within 30 days--meaning by late July, leaving just two months for final implementation before the arena opens with a Jay-Z concert on September 28.

Veconi said it was important to ensure that public input would be heard. The comment period, he said, is "when the developer will create facts on the ground."

"The last part of the lot, responded  Hankin, includes curb cuts, striping, and planting. "Those are the aspects the community will have the opportunity to comment on."

Veconi responded that the issue went well beyond such design issues. "What we're actually looking for is meaningful redress of the [potential] 25-year impact of this lot," he said, noting that the block is supposed to contain residential units with open space. "What's the trade-off for something that mitigates the delay in all of this?"

Governance

In contrast with his statement at the initial meeting last September Adams also revealed that his agency was open to a new governance entity to provide community input on the project, the subject of proposed but unsuccessful state legislation.

“We're open to this, we're in discussions with elected officials,” Adams said, adding that “we’re looking at models of different types of community advisory councils.”

Forest City Ratner has been against such legislation. While Adams’s statement may be seen as a concession, it could ultimately be a minor one, depending on the strength of the governance entity.

“The transparency of decision-making is what's really important,” commented Veconi. “The gold standard is that decisions are made by a board that includes outside directors.”

He commented diplomatically that decisions made by the ESD’s board were made by people “not as familiar” with the issues or “didn’t have the information they perhaps should have had.” He recommended “something that looks like the Hudson River Park Trust,” with outside directors appointed by local elected officials.

One concern raised after the meeting by residents: the governance entity could, essentially, be toothless, offering the form of public input without much effect.

Appeal in SEIS case?

Adams allowed that his agency has not decided whether to appeal a unanimous loss last month in a state appeals court, which ruled that ESD must conduct a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) regarding the worst-case community effects of a 25-year project buildout.

Veconi pointed out evenly that the result resulted from a re-argument of a case ESD originally won, because “counsel for ESD misrepresented the terms of the Master Development Agreement” regarding the incentives to get the project built in the promised ten years. In other words, the decision confirmed community suspicions that the agency has proceeded in bad faith,

“I understand from a legal point of view why you might be considering an appeal,” he said, “but you lost the appeal by a unanimous vote... the message you're saying I think is counter to the impression you're trying to create... My question is: why are you considering an appeal?”

Council Member Steve Levin at mic. Photo by Tracy Collins.
“You're putting your finger on a key issue that's a cause of internal debate,” Adams replied genially. “You make a great point... Internally, we've got a big team of lawyers, folks with far more expertise.”

“I can understand that attorneys involved have a sense of ownership and pride,” Veconi countered, “but at the end of the day, you’re the CEO... your message is your message.”

He got some backup from Council Member Levin, who said, "It would pay to start looking at compliance and the SEIS sooner rather than later... If you're going to lose unanimously at the appellate division, you're not going to win at the Court of Appeals, so it would probably make the most sense to get on it with it, take your lumps, see where it shakes out... That's going to be a meaningful way to move past where we've been."

Has SEIS started?

Last November, Hankin said, that despite the lower court's decision in the timetable case and the agency's appeal, ESD had begun work on an SEIS regarding the neighborhood impacts of an extended project buildout.

The agency had approved extension of its contract with environmental consultant AKRF for a “substantial amount,” she said. AKRF had begun to work on the scope for the document. After the draft scope is finalized in-house, Hankin said, "we will be going to the public, soliciting comments.”

That was six months ago, so I asked for an update. "We have been working on the beginnings of a draft scope internally, for quite some time," Hankin said.

What's happened to make it less forthcoming... You decided you needed to wait 'til the end of litigation?" Veconi asked.

Ginsburgh confirmed that "we wanted to see what happened on the litigation. Our goal wasn't to get out of a detailed analysis of the environmental impacts... We felt that the prior one was sufficient." The quickest path, he said, to delivering the project benefits is to use the existing environmental review.

"I don't want to go there," responded Veconi, whose organization was a successful petitioner in the lawsuit.

Jo Anne Simon, District Leader for the 52nd Assembly District, added that a look at impacts must "be broader than Prospect Heights." The arena, she said more than once, would affect several neighborhoods.

The Carlton Avenue Bridge

Levin brought up the Carlton Avenue Bridge, a key artery between Prospect Heights and Fort Greene that is supposed to be rebuilt before the arena opens.  He asked whether it was behind schedule, pointing out that the ESD's own consultant, STV, has been saying it's a month late, and now due in late September.

Hankin, Director, Atlantic Yards Project for ESD, said the "initial schedule" showed the completion date of the end of August but now the bridge is scheduled to be open before the arena opens in late September. (As of March, STV indicated that the bridge was "officially one month behind schedule and is forecast to be complete in late September."

"I'm more than confident that the bridge will be open before the first public event at the arena," Hankin declared.

Need for coordination

Rob Perris at left. Photo by Tracy Collins.
Rob Perris, District Manager of Community Board 2, said he was glad to hear about the formation of a quality of life commtittee, "but it reminds me of one of my standing quips: "I need to hire someone half time just to do Atlantic Yards."

He suggested that, given the various bodies now devoted to Atlantic Yards, "I hope ESD can look at this in a holistic way." For example, hes aid, the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet was initially proposed to meet quarterly, while stakeholders including himself proposed monthly meetings. The compromise was bi-monthly, but even that's not sufficient.

Perris said it took months to set up a meeting with Lolita Jackson, the city official who heads the interagency task force: "I thought it was a generally positive meeting, but at the end, the Community Boards were told this group was just for city agencies. I thought I was one."

Adams said ESD aimed to ensure more input in the governance structure going forward.

Which police precinct?

The arena site sits at the confluence of three Community Boards and three police precincts, and it has not yet been determined which precinct--or a sub-station, as requested by Council Member James--would have jurisdiction over the Barclays Center.

Perris said the police department's study was ongoing, involving the 77th, 78th, 84th, and 88th Precincts. "The 78th appears to be the frontrunner," he said, noting it's just a block away from the arena (though the arena's not in the precinct) and has excess capacity to accommodate additional officers.

The New York Post has already reported that the 78th has been chosen, though that report was denied by officials.

Limits to bending: no UNITY

A couple of community members, including Montgomery's aide Irene Van Slyke, brought up the community-generated UNITY plan, in which individual parcels would be auctioned off to different developers.

Adams said he'd become familiar with the plan, thanks to a meeting organized by Council Member James, and "I get the values that it's based on. Is there a path to that plan? No."

Why can't property be taken from developer Forest City Ratner, asked Fort Greene and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn activist Lucy Koteen.

Adams responded that the developer has not violated any of the conditions of the Development Agreement, which, it should be pointed out, provides 12 years for the completion of Phase 1, at least three towers on the arena block, and 25 years for the whole project.

Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn observed that "it seems like many deals are made to be renegotiated," citing Forest City Ratner's deal with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for Vanderbilt Yard development rights.

"There are probably some sticks you have to make it happen," he suggested, citing the potential approval and subsidy process for Forest City's modular housing plan.

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