Thursday, June 12, 2014

Before ESD approves Final SEIS, Veconi hints of legal action over timetable and gentrification

In less than half an hour, the board of Empire State Development, the state authority overseeing/shepherding Atlantic Yards, approved the court-ordered Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (Final SEIS) despite evidence that it was not complete.

Board members seemed unperturbed. But they may have been a bit more perturbed by a seeming warning of legal action or major protest regarding the failure to enforce a more timely construction schedule.

The warning came from Gib Veconi, treasurer of Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, part of the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, which sued after the state agreed to give Forest City Ratner 25 years to build Atlantic Yards after long claiming it would take a decade. The lawsuit forced the SEIS to evaluate the impacts of an extended buildout.

"In 2009, our organizations were concerned about potential for delay," Veconi said. "Today, I would say, we are exponentially more  concerned." He cited information in the Final SEIS that shows how "working families and families of color are being displaced at a breakneck pace from the neighborhoods that surround this project."

Atlantic Yards was supposed to stem the tide of gentrification in Northwest Brooklyn, and received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, plus zoning overrides, tax-exempt bonds, and the ability to assemble property under the threat of eminent domain, Veconi noted. But no affordable housing has been built.

Who's to blame?

Veconi said it couldn't be blamed on lawsuits because "there have been no legal impediments to the project's moving forward"--at least for Phase 1, around the arena block.

"Is it the fault of bad economy?" he asked. "We know it's not the case... Construction is at an all time high in Downtown Brooklyn."

"Is it Forest City Ratner's fault?" he asked. "They may deserve some of the blame... but at the risk of speaking bluntly, most of the blame for the delay in affordable housing at Atlantic Yards belongs to ESDC, quite frankly it belongs to you."

He pointed out that, in 2009, the state authority approved a Modified General Project Plan that established a 2035 outside build date for Atlantic Yards, "with no meaningful remedies for non-performance."

"Now, today, you have an opportunity to right that wrong," he said. "You have an opportunity to see that, instead of surfing the tide of gentrification [a formulation used in this blog] it actually works to stem the tide."

What next?

Approval of the SEIS, he said, would allow Forest City and its joint venture partner, the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, to build two towers on the southeast block, as planned. But nothing will change the 2035 deadline.

"You today should not approve an SEIS that will clear the way to cement that date until you are certain that the project as it's reconstituted now has meaningful mitigations that protect the vulnerable populations in the communities around the project from the risks of extended delay," he warned.

"I urge you not to move on this SEIS today until you know those remedies are in place," he said. "From our perspective, as community organizations, the Brooklyn Speaks organizations are not prepared to stand by and watch the state continue to be allow our communities to be exposed to the risk of project delay."

That sounds like a threat.

Other comments

Wayne Bailey of the Newswalk Board of Managers noted that new oversight is proposed in the Final SEIS and asked how the developer's compliance would be overseen.

He noted that residents have through-the-wall air conditioners and need covers to mitigate noise. "Why should the residents have to pay to have those covers installed so we can get peaceful sleep at nighttime?" he asked.

Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association pointed to a litany of community complaints, and cited a statement in the Final SEIS in which ESD claimed to be unaware of a request for air monitoring at one point. "I can tell you I was on the phone with Jennifer Maldonado," then an ESD staffer, regarding that, Krashes said.

"The community will never trust the state to oversee this project," he said, reiterating the request for "a dedicated board with independent directors" to oversee the project.

Also testifying was Dean Street resident Richard Dalton, who said significant nighttime noise when modular components are delivered means "my family and I are woken up many times."

The sanctioned noise mitigation, double-paned windows and air conditioners, is "totally inadequate."

"I spent a lot of time researching mitigation strategies and implementing them at our own expense," he said. "All I ask is that you consider disclosing the sound transmission class of the windows of the buildings that are going to be built in this project, and consider providing those windows and ventilation to impacted residents."

ESD response

ESD CEO Kenneth Adams, a Brooklynite, was unfailingly cordial, as always, and thanked community members for their comments and concerns. He and fellow board members offered no substantive response, however.


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