Wednesday, June 04, 2014

At community meeting, laments about failure to disclose noisy, bright night work, and signs that Forest City, not the state, is in charge

Last night's Atlantic Yards Quality of Life Committee meeting largely concerned the changes in--and constraints on--traffic and pedestrian flow near the Barclays Center expected over the next two years during construction of the West Portal and the arena's green roof, as disclosed in a document circulated before the meeting.

They leave far less margin for error for vehicles near the arena (including drop-offs of event attendees) and people crossing streets near the arena block, as I'll describe in a separate post. (Developer Forest City Ratner also said three residential towers, two of them with affordable units, would start in the next 12 months, but wasn't ready to provide details.)

But the meeting structure, and a few exchanges about Forest City's belated disclosure of nighttime work, crystallized the feeling for some that the developer, not New York State (via Empire State Development, or ESD) is running the project. And it put another gloss on the controversial award to Forest City's Chairman and CEO.

After all, though ESD called the meeting and Derek Lynch, the ESD's community and government relations manager, launched it, he immediately turned it over to Forest City, whose staff and contractors made presentations and managed the flow of questions. Along with committee members, there were 40-50 people in the audience at the YWCA at Third and Atlantic avenues.

At several points, Ashley Cotton, Forest City's Director of External Affairs, stressed that residents get two-week look-aheads--prepared by Forest City and typically disseminated by ESD--to advise them of upcoming work.

As it happened, a recent episode that disturbed neighbors' sleep and provoked enormous frustration was neither disclosed with sufficient warning--which Cotton appeared not to know--nor described with useful detail about overnight noise and bright lights.

Complaints about night work

Wayne Bailey, a resident of the Newswalk condo on Pacific Street opposite the Vanderbilt Yard, asked about upcoming night work, so residents could prepare for impacts. "When are you guys going to tell us?" he asked.

Within the next few weeks, said the Department of Transportation's Chris Hrones, the stipulations for such work will be released and define work hours. Forest City officials said they expected nearly all the work to be done by day.

Bailey responded that exploratory work in April for the West Portal railyard project, at Sixth and Atlantic avenues, was done from 10 pm to 6 am.

"Did we notify people?" Cotton asked colleagues.

"We were told we can only do that limited work at night," responded Tom Bonacuso, a Forest City Senior VP. "Maybe we failed to notify the community beforehand."

Some in the audience laughed bitterly.

Forest City was required to do that work overnight. "On the other hand, this [upcoming] major work," Bonacuso said, "you cannot do that work at night." He added that Forest City would rather work by day, because the night shift costs more in compensation.

Will there be future night work? "It will be occasional, it will be on an exceptional basis," he responded.

Proper notice

"Why were there spotlights for two weeks?" asked an aggrieved Rob DiRenzo, a resident of the Atlantic Terrace building just north of the railyard on Atlantic Avenue. "If you had notified us, we would have put blinds up. Maybe we would’ve gotten ear plugs.... We lived there for two weeks with huge lights in our apartment."

"All night time work, you’re supposed to be notified of," Cotton responded cordially. "That’s not acceptable. It's beyond embarrassing for me as the public face of this company, who’s supposed to come out here, spend all this time with all of you guys, and then not know what Wayne knows because he lives there and has windows and I love up the street and I don’t see it. So we’re incredibly sympathetic. I know that’s not good enough, after the fact. The rule is, you’re supposed to be notified, we have something called two-week look-aheads. You’ve obviously not been getting them."

The implication was that it was disclosed with sufficient notice--but it wasn't.

"If it is the middle of night and you guys want to call me on my cell, please do," she said. "I’d rather that than hear there’s night time work I hear about three weeks later at a community meeting." 

There were several complaints not merely at this community meeting but at a public hearing April 30 on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement--which is what she may have meant by "three weeks later."

Looking at the evidence

Cotton soon called up the April 14 two-week look-ahead on her iPad. She began reading it, noting that it did state that the DOT required the work to be done at night: "Again this is not perfect, and we’re sympathetic to your life experiences, but this is the kind of stuff we notify you guys on."

"Doesn’t that two-week look-ahead say the work has already started?" I asked from the audience.

"I can read it," Cotton responded, then started to do so: "Work will be performed within the time frame of March 24, 2014 and April 23, 2014. We put this out late, is that what you're saying?

"That’s after the fact," I said. "It started weeks before."

"Can you put on there what it is?" Bailey said, asking for more description of impacts. "You just read that, nobody knows that's floodlights all night long, it's the beeping [of trucks backing up]."

Looking at the sequence

Alert circulated March 26 for work said to begin March 25
The announcements did come late.

Work began, at least according to Forest City, on the evening of March 25, as disclosed in a Supplemental Report (sent by AtlanticYards.com, not ESD) to the March 17 two-week look-ahead, which had not alerted anybody to such night work. 

The sequence seems suspicious. Surely Forest City knew eight days earlier that night work was planned.

However, that disclosure was circulated on March 26 the day after the work was supposed to begin.

The disclosure did continue in the two-week look-aheads dated March 31 and April 14

(I didn't write much about the night work because I didn't hear immediate complaints and I was focusing on the delays in construction of the B2 tower. Also, I was not sent the March 31 document on time but had to get it a week later.)

The issue of oversight

At the meeting, Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association several times stressed the importance of having an environmental monitor on site who doesn't work for the developer or contractors. "Nothing against Forest City Ratner, but we need somebody who's in place who's impartial," he said.

As reported in July 2012, a report prepared for the initiative Atlantic Yards Watch by a veteran environmental consulting firm concluded that Forest City and its contractors, bent on getting the arena and associated work finished by a tight deadline, had regularly failed to comply with mitigation protocols officially agreed to, and that other mitigations were implemented late, poorly, or unevenly.

"We do have people on the ground," noted Lynch, responding to Krashes.

The state's environmental monitor, Krashes responded, "appears to largely to look at the paperwork of the monitor who works for Forest City Ratner and the contractors."

Jimmy Greenfield, who owns a gallery on Dean Street, commented that "it just seems ludicrous to me you wouldn't go back to the people above you and demand these little accommodations are made."

Cotton got the last word, noting that she talks with Krashes periodically and isn't in a position to provide what he requested. "Independent oversight is a really tricky word," she said. "He’s talking about someone we do not pay. At some point he's talking to the state about this environmental thing."

"Olive branches, accommodation, peace of mind, if you don’t get that from me that, I'm failing," she said. "I'm not paid to get him a private impartial environmental blah blah blah that we don't pay."

On that, the meeting ended. Several people stuck around to talk with Cotton and her staff.

(Actually, Forest City did agree to pay for an Independent Compliance Monitor for the Community Benefits Agreement, which has an environmental component. But they never hired the compliance monitor.)

Where was the MTA?

At one point during the meeting, Krashes asked whether the work planned would extend beyond February 2016, as scheduled. "What kind of incentives does the state have for it getting done on time?" he asked.

"Let me raise that question, it's an interesting question," said Marion Phillips III of ESD. "It's something to contemplate."

"It's an MTA contract," Krashes responded.

"Let me speak to MTA," Phillips countered.

"I worked very hard," Krashes said, expressing frustration. "I asked for MTA to be at this meeting... The fact that they're not here--they're entity the work is happening on behalf of. They're the entity that oversees construction."

"We've been talking to the MTA," added Paula Roy, who oversees the project for ESD, from the audience.

"It’s insulting to us for them not to show up," Krashes continued. "It's insulting for ESD to allow it. Not everyone can have a scheduling problem."

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:03 AM

    Marion Philips didn't do his homework and failed at his job. He should of had reached out to all parties, MTA and other stakeholders since that is what he is getting paid for as the head of community relations. "interesting question". Insulting on many levels and very amateur of phillips to not have had all parties at the meeting.

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