Friday, December 21, 2012

Supplemental EIS process starts; does Draft Scope properly outline issues? I suggest study of 25-year buildout should address blight, economic impact, and whether other developers deserve a shot

How much worse would a 25-year Atlantic Yards buildout be than the ten-year buildout long promised and the 15-year scenario studied in 2009 when the project was re-approved?

Some seven years after the environmental review for Atlantic Yards provoked charged public meetings, a new round of review begins, limited to the project's second phase (11 towers east of Sixth Avenue) and likely to generate far less public interest.

Though the process likely will lead to few changes, it could raise some contentious issues, such as the delay in removing blight, the impact of delayed (and modular) construction, and whether alternative developers should work alongside Forest City Ratner.

The process, known as a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), derives from a court order.

Empire State Development (ESD) yesterday issued a 20-page Draft Scope for a SEIS nearly six months after the state Court of Appeals rejected an attempt to appeal an appellate court's unanimous affirmation of a lower court's order to study the potential impact of a 25-year Atlantic Yards buildout. (The document is at bottom.)

Even with the convoluted court case than began in the fall of 2009, progress has been slow. In September 2011, ESD, while announcing it would appeal Supreme Court Justice Marcy Friedman's decision, also said it would begin an SEIS. That didn't quite make sense; indeed, no progress was announced.

First step

The Draft Scope is a first step, intended to draw comments on its " thoroughness and adequacy," either in writing (atlanticyards@esd.ny.gov) and at a public meeting, the date of which has not yet been announced.

After that, a Final Scope will be issued. Then the ESD's consultant, almost surely the ubiquitous AKRF, will produce a Draft SEIS.

If the pattern from 2006 recurs, that document will be the subject of public comment and a public hearing before a Final SEIS is issued and approved by the ESD board.

The stated goal: to identify any impacts not previously identified and to target potential mitigations. I suspect that modular construction--not assessed in previous reviews--will be judged a significant improvement, given lower number of trucks, workers, and construction debris.

It's unclear, however, whether the economic impact of modular construction, with lowered compensation and potentially fewer workers, will be assessed.

Community victory

The process of environmental review rarely leads to significant changes. Still, the mere fact that community groups (led by Develop Don't Destroy and BrooklynSpeaks) won the lawsuit was a significant moral victory, given that judges defer to agencies if they have a "rational basis."

Courts agreed that ESD (aka ESDC) failed to "take a 'hard look' at the relevant areas of environmental concern and failed to make a 'reasoned elaboration' of the basis for its determination that it was not required to prepare an SEIS."

That decision was no mere bureaucratic slip, attorneys for the petitioners contended. Though ESD knew the project could take 25 years, it failed to study that possibility, because the time needed to conduct an SEIS would have pushed the re-approval of Atlantic Yars past a crucial end-of-2009 deadline  for tax-exempt bonds.

Blight and a 25-year buildout

Indeed, the Draft Scope says nothing about a significant justification for the project, the goal of eliminating blight, which was prominent in the March 2006 Final Scope for the EIS. The extension of a buildout to 25 years from a potential ten years presumably extends blight, given that it would take longer to build a deck and develop over the unsightly railroad cut.

When Atlantic Yards was re-approved in 2009, the project was anticipated to take ten years, as stated in the 2006 approval, though a five-year potential delay was acknowledged. However, not long after that, the state signed a Development Agreement that gave Forest City Ratner 25 years to build the project in full, with light penalties for the second phase.

Blight is hinted at, though not cited, in discussion of construction impacts, but the issue is categorized a "change to the pedestrian experience":
Since the FEIS, most of the buildings on the Project‘s Phase II footprint have been removed but the below-grade open rail yard still comprises a significant area of the Phase II Project site. Under the Extended Build-Out construction scenarios, there would be incremental realization of the Project as buildings are completed. Nonetheless, sites not under active construction would be maintained under existing conditions such as the continued existence of the open rail yard or would have interim uses such as for construction parking and staging or surface parking for an extended period. A preliminary assessment of urban design and visual resources will be prepared for the Phase II construction period, following the guidelines of the 2012 CEQR Technical Manual. The preliminary assessment will evaluate whether any of the potential construction scenarios would create a change to the pedestrian experience that is sufficiently significant–in comparison to the Project as evaluated in the FEIS–to require greater explanation and further study.
Alternatives

The Draft Scope does not explicitly acknowledge the alternative, as suggested by some community groups, of bidding out various sites to other developers. 

One project alternative "currently under consideration by ESD and the project sponsors" addresses reduced parking for residential use--likely welcome as a policy consideration, given the robust public transit, though a source of tension in the neighborhood given the search for parking by arena-goers.

Also, the Draft Scope states ambiguously :
Alternatives that would avoid or minimize any identified new or additional significant adverse impacts of the Extended Build-Out Scenario beyond those identified in the FEIS will be examined.
Presumably that could include bringing in other developers. Then again, that alternative is surely not being considered by Forest City, the project sponsors.

Three scenarios

The SEIS will assume a 2035 end-date for the purposes of analysis, with three construction phasing scenarios:
  • Continuous sequential phasing of Phase II construction; 
  • Continuous sequential phasing of Phase II construction, with Block 1129 in earlier build-out; 
  • Start and stop sequential phasing of Phase II construction with intense construction activities. 
Note that Forest City Ratner has already said that it aims to build first on Block 1129, the site of the surface parking lot and the only available terra firma. The implies a delay in building over the railyard.

What being updated, what's not

Among background conditions to be updated for the SEIS: public school/day care enrollment/capacity; open space and population; new traffic and pedestrian counts; subway and bus data; noise measurements; results from a data collection regarding Nets fan patterns.

Several areas analyzed in 2006 will not require detailed assessment, according to the Draft Scope, since the previous analysis was sufficient:  Shadows; Hazardous Materials; Infrastructure; and Public Health.

Socioeconomic conditions

The updated analysis will address whether the extended build-out scenario would alter conclusions regarding socioeconomic conditions, such as the provision of affordable housing. 

Unmentioned: how the extended build-out would affect the calculations of project-related tax revenues, given that previous analyses assumed a ten-year buildout.

In fact, since the SEIS does not address Phase 1, it apparently won't assess a significant component of those revenues: the long delayed flagship office tower, looming more than 50 stories over the arena plaza, with well over 1,000 jobs.

Open space

The Draft Scope acknowledges a continued delay in open space:
The FEIS identified a temporary significant adverse open space impact in the non-residential (¼-mile) study area during Phase II construction. This temporary open space impact would continue for a longer duration under the Extended Build-Out Scenario but would be addressed upon completion of the Phase II open space. Moreover, as each of the Phase II buildings is completed, the adjacent open space would be provided in conformance with the 2006 Design Guidelines, thereby offsetting some of this temporary open space impact. The SEIS analysis will include updates to the area‘s open space inventory and conditions, and project new population demands for open space resources. The assessment will determine whether changed background conditions and the Extended Build-Out Scenario would result in any impacts not previously disclosed, and whether any additional mitigation measures would be warranted.
The open space was also supposed to serve the new residents of the towers around the arena, who have no new open space associated with those buildings.

Modular housing, construction impact

The document states, as if unmindful of Forest City's announced plans to build the rest of Atlantic Yards using prefab techniques, that it's a possibility:
It is possible that some or all of the buildings planned for Phase II would be constructed using prefabricated, or modular, construction techniques, in that steel-frame modules would be built offsite in a factory and then transported to the site, assembled together, and finished. Construction schedules, phasing plans, staging plans, and anticipated construction procedures (i.e., standard vs. modular construction) will be developed for Phase II. Representative snap shots of the development area over the course of the construction period will be prepared to show locations of completed/occupied sites, locations and logistics of on-going construction activities, and access/egress locations of permanent and temporary parking facilities. For the purposes of analyzing the reasonable worst-case development scenarios for construction, construction impacts will be evaluated for the periods when maximum potential impacts are expected during construction activity. The construction analysis will, where relevant, discuss differences in potential impacts related to on-site standard and modular construction techniques. 
Given that modular construction would require fewer truck deliveries, workers on site, and construction debris, it's likely that it would be judged an improvement over conventional construction, even with delays.

That's the construction impact, but not the economic impact. 

Indeed, the socioeconomic conditions related to construction impacts to be studied relate only to whether a delay in construction "would lead to substantial residential or business disinvestment." The larger question is how modular changes the cost-benefit scenario of the project as a whole and, if ESD is only studying Phase 2, they may say that's beyond the court order.

Neighborhood character

What about the impact of construction on neighborhood character? The document states:
The FEIS concluded that the Project‘s construction activities would have significant adverse localized neighborhood character impacts in the immediate vicinity of the Project site, particularly the quiet character of Dean and Pacific Streets directly across from the Project site. Those impacts would be localized and would not alter the character of the larger neighborhoods surrounding the Project site. A number of mitigation measures to reduce the construction impacts were imposed as part of the Project‘s Environmental Commitments. Under the Extended Build-Out construction scenarios, there would be incremental realization of the Project as buildings are completed and occupied by its permanent intended uses. Construction activities would not occur on every Project block at the same time and concurrent construction activities would be of varying intensities. Nonetheless, sites not under active construction would be maintained under existing conditions such as the continued existence of the open rail yard or would have interim uses such as for construction parking and staging areas or surface parking for a prolonged period. Pulling from other construction analysis areas, this section will provide a determination of whether construction activities related to the various Extended Build-Out scenarios would result in any neighborhood impacts not previously disclosed in the FEIS, and whether any additional or different mitigation measures would be required.
There's already a track record--numerous untoward impacts from construction of the arena. The Memorandum of Environmental Commitments was both inadequate in scope and ineffective, according to a study commissioned by community groups. Shouldn't the SEIS acknowledge that?

2 comments:

  1. The law does not permit 25-year projects - 10 years is the timeline.

    No amount of environmental review will make a quarter-century eminent domain project lawful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That case would have to be made in court; it has not been successful so far.

      Delete