Thursday, June 05, 2014

Forest City's Atlantic Yards plan: milestones in June; managing arena access with streets/sidewalks constricted; pending questions about enforcement, timing of buildings, closing of streets for cranes

Beyond the questions about the Barclays Center's green roof and developer Forest City Ratner's belated disclosure of noisy, bright overnight work, the Atlantic Yards Quality of Life Committee meeting Tuesday night concerned the construction impacts of the West Portal and the roof, as disclosed in a document circulated before the meeting.

The main impact is a significantly constricted Atlantic Avenue, which will constrain access to the arena and require new traffic managers to maintain safety and order.

There was little discussion of Forest City's plans to build towers, but Ashley Cotton, Forest City Ratner's Director of External Affairs, did provide a partial update on the developer's expectations of hitting "three major milestones" this month.

There were some new faces at the meeting, this time from the Atlantic Terrace development opposite the railyard and catercorner to the arena. Some residents were disturbed and angered by noise and overnight bright lights in April during preliminary work on Atlantic Avenue for the West Portal.

Joint venture closing

She said they will close the joint venture (JV) with the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, which will buy 70% of the project going forward and have the majority of decision-making seats. (Major decisions require consensus with Forest City.)

It's unclear whether Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority that oversees/shepherds Atlantic Yards, has to approve the joint venture. When I asked, I was first told no, then told the situation was under study.

SEIS finalized

"We also expect ESD to finalize the Supplemental EIS [Environmental Impact Statement]," Cotton said, which means the authority's board will be addressing Atlantic Yards at a meeting this month. The board also must approve the Modified General Project Plan, which incorporates shifts in the project's bulk and a reduction of parking, though that may not happen this month.

Completion guarantee for railyard

"Finally, and very exciting, we will post the completion guarantee to the MTA for completing the permanent railyard," Cotton said. "Think of it as a blank check... our company, now our JV, we are building this permanent railyard."

Actually, under that 2009 MTA agreement, Forest City was required to formally start the permanent railyard two years ago, by June 30, 2012, and to finish it by September 2016. The developer twice got the formal start date pushed back, while it recruited another investor to share the risk.

What remains unclear is whether the MTA will also accept Forest City's proposal to accelerate some elements of the railyard related to the future platform but extend the deadline to finish the permanent railyard to 12/1/17. The proposal will be presented for consideration at the MTA Board’s June 25
meeting.

New housing coming

"With all these milestones, we will be doing a lot of rail and infrastructure work, and we will be building housing," Cotton said. She noted that B2, the first tower, is being built via modular construction "and unfortunately, moving slower than anyone had had hoped... while we finish B2, we are turning back to conventional construction... because we don't want to slow down."

Or, because that's what Greenland has said.

"We are seeking to break ground on three more towers in next 12 months," she said, noting that two would have affordable units, and the other wouldn't. She said they don't have details yet.

Two of those buildings will be on the southeast block, currently occupied by the surface parking lot, Block 1129.

That means "we'll need to take down the Weinstein building," the refurbished industrial building on the parking lot (formerly owned by Henry Weinstein) that has served as offices for workers at the project.

The other building will be B3, at the southeast corner of the arena block, currently occupied by bicycle parking. The site will first be used for a crane to install the arena's green roof.

Forest City has not yet announced plans for B4, a much larger tower at the northeast corner of the arena block, but has already gotten the state to approve design changes.

"Where in this time frame does construction for B3 fit in?" asked resident Gib Veconi at one point.

"It’s not on this," Cotton said. "We haven't announced it."

"It was sort of announced, back in April," Veconi pointed out, citing Forest City's public statements about three buildings started within 12 months." At some point, he added, "this is coming in on top of the rest of this."

He said that suggested there would be some additional traffic constraints at Dean Street and Sixth Avenue.

"I haven't seen the B3 [traffic plan]," Cotton said. "We're going to come back to you."

He asked if the crane for the green roof at the B3 site would also be used for construction.

Cotton said no.

"Ultimately it will go away and we will start excavation for B3," said her colleague Jane Marshall.

Veconi noted that the B3 crane will be in place through January 2015. "You can’t be excavating," he said.

"We don't expect to be, but we could start in March," Marshall said.

New plans coming

The meeting, however, focused on the green roof the the MPT--maintenance and protection of traffic--that will constrain traffic to allow construction. The plans have not yet been approved by the city Department of Transportation, but work is expected to begin this month.

Green Roof & West Portal Overview, Atlantic Yards, June 2014


Cotton said that, with the exception of work on Flatbush Avenue, all the work for the green roof they have "managed to tuck it behind the MPT," given that one crane is on Atlantic Avenue and the other on the B3 site.

That said, the green roof construction was never planned or disclosed.

The West Portal she called "an incredibly important public benefit to LIRR," given that it provides a direct and efficient connection to the terminal at Atlantic Avenue, rather than having trains go east from the railyard and then reverse course. (The absence of anyone from the MTA/LIRR rankled some at the meeting.)

The first stage will be removal of medians on Atlantic Avenue, as well as work on Pacific Street near Sixth Avenue, as piles are drilled for work on a retaining wall. Several people asked about the impact of vibrations, since there have been complaints in the past. Forest City said all work was within approved guidelines.

One resident, Wayne Bailey, pointed to the importance of vigilance and the developer's capacity for improvement in construction techniques. The contrast between "the first time they did pile drilling to the second time was the difference between night and day," he said.

Impact of street constriction

The medians will be gone for two years. "We understand there's an inquiry about planting these medians," Cotton said, indicating that can be discussed later.

Will there be any safety mitigation for the removal of medians, which serve as a pedestrian refuge, asked Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors.

Chris Hrones of the DOT said the agency is considering mitigations, such as Traffic Enforcement Agents, additional pedestrian managers, and, if those aren't sufficient, some changes in signal timing.

As for evaluating impacts of the constricted road, "we could definitely take a look at that," he said, though it's "not something we typically do with an MPT." That could lead to a dedicated bus or bike lane.

Given expected traffic detours, has the volume of traffic been evaluated?

Hrones noted that traffic will vary over multiple stages. "We did request that Forest City look at that, and provide us with the numbers," he said, as "part of the way we're developing mitigations."

One resident asked about the constriction of Dean Street at Flatbush Avenue already caused by B2 construction and the dangers posed to bicyclists. Hrones said the construction fence couldn't be pulled back

"The reality is, as frustrating--and I'm a cyclist--as it is, in that space, bikes will have to share the road with the cars, and you probably know--as a cyclist, you just sort of have to assert yourself and go single file," he said. "I know it's not ideal."

"It's a pinch point for the foreseeable future," said Terence Kelly, the arena's community relation's manager (and a bicyclist himself), who noted that cyclists using the route already are mindful.

Hrones said he'd think about "creative ideas to make motorists more aware."

Changes in arena access

Cotton said the arena will issue new rules and guidelines regarding the constricted space to walk from the arena or to drop off people on Atlantic Avenue. She acknowledged it's "clearly not ideal."

"Where people are going to be dropped off at the arena?" asked resident Peter Krashes.

Cotton said such questions remain questions subject to agency approval. The situation will clearly change month to month.

For example, October to November 2014 will be particularly dicey, given no ability for arena-goers to walk east along Atlantic Avenue and a small area, with the gray hashmark, for drop-offs.

The B45 eastbound stop at Sixth Avenue and Atlantic Avenue will be moved east for two years. Most likely the westbound B45 stop at South Portland Avenue and Atlantic will be removed, as well.

New traffic patterns

What happens when traffic is diverted from southbound Sixth Avenue to Carlton Avenue and then Pacific Street?

"It's actually a better circumstance," suggested Kelly, given the generally low volume on Carlton.

"It seems like to me the jam is going to be on pacific, and all the honking is going to be outside my building," said resident Robert Puca.

Hrones said the DOT will try to determine the necessary mitigations. "There will be more divergence to Carlton and Pacific, which are low volume roads, they can handle it," he said. "But I will tell you, there will be significant traffic."

If southbound pedestrians are crossing from the north side of Atlantic Avenue and South Portland Avenue while southbound traffic is forced to turn left, there's a conflict, one resident pointed out. "It's going to be a hazard."

Cotton and Hrones conceded the challenge and said they'd look at mitigations.

What about the buses that sometimes line up on Atlantic Avenue to deliver school or children's groups to shows like Disney on Ice?

Kelly said the arena's traffic department maintains regular contact with groups, but acknowledged, "I know we're still figuring out final plans."

Who's in charge and how does enforcement work?

Several people expressed skepticism about DOT enforcement. Has it ever stopped work on a project?

Hrones said he wasn't sure.

"It's not good business for the arena to have any violations," Kelly said, though the arena certainly doesn't mind having black cars and limos idle in neighborhood streets rather than pay for parking.

"I'll be frank with you, during arena construction, there were periods where contractor was doing stuff they weren't supposed to, we issued violations," said Hrones.

Will trucks be unloaded at night? No, they will sit there in the morning. Forest City predicted about 40 truck deliveries over five months for the projects.

What about the problems with black cars?

"Black cars are an anticipated impact as part of the EIS," Cotton said. "I do not have a cure-all." That's for sure.

Who's paying?

Krashes suggested there would be more burdens on the New York Police Department and asked who's paying for additional police/staff.

"We're still negotiating with arena stakeholders," Kelly said.

"Will the taxpayer be paying for extra police officers?" asked Krashes.

"We don't know," Cotton said.

Marshall said the arena paid for traffic enforcement agents.

"Generally, the city looks at all things that go on, and they plan accordingly," said Marion Phillips III of the ESD.

"But you work for the state," Krashes said. "You should also be assessing the costs and assuring that they aren't shifted to the taxpayer."

Pauline Blake, president of the 78th Precincet Community Council, noted that traffic agents are assigned to manage traffic but aren't allowed to issue summonses. "What would it take for us to get proper enforcement officers" to crack down on illegal parking.

The answer again came from the developer, not any public agency. "That's a challenge we've been speaking about since Day 1," Kelly responded. "This West Portal project certainly creates a more narrow margin for error... We're in direct contract with enforcement."

Changes in police parking

Will police lose parking on Sixth Avenue between Pacific and Dean streets, where they were moved, as Sixth Avenue sidewalk parking between Bergen and Dean was nixed?

"Quite possibly," said NYPD Sergeant Angelo Pirozzi, who noted the sidewalk a block away will remain uncongested.

Closing streets for assembly of cranes

Cotton noted that the plan did not disclose dates--because they're not set yet--in which the three huge cranes are assembled.

"The B3 crane, Flatbush crane and Atlantic Avenue crane all will have three-day periods, which you will be heavily warned about," with major street closures, Cotton said. "Without knowing what dates they are, we have to come back to you."

Several people said they hadn't gotten sufficient notice in the past, while Forest City and arena staff said they had made significant attempts.

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