Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Waiting for the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation; questions about new "alignment" and construction vs. oversight

It's less than a week before the December 15 groundbreaking for the next Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park tower, the 100% affordable building at 535 Carlton Avenue, as well as the December 16 groundbreaking for the condo building designated 550 Vanderbilt Avenue.

So where's the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), the 14-member advisory/monitoring body created as part of a deal for a new housing timetable signed at the end of June with several community organizations?

We're still waiting for the first AY CDC meeting to be scheduled. (Shouldn't interested residents get a few weeks of notice?) And we're waiting for the body's director to be named. After all, it was supposed to be in place before construction started.

As I wrote, the first groundbreaking, however symbolic, likely will occur before the first meeting of the AY CDC, which is supposed to debut next week. Meetings will be at least quarterly. (In September, a state official said the goal for the first meeting was no later than December 15. So I'd expect announcements very soon.)

Symbolic issues, and reasons for skepticism

Sure, new government entities require bureaucracy, but the delay reinforces the lingering suspicion that project completion and construction--especially that associated with "affordable housing"--takes precedent over oversight.

Indeed, the structure of the advisory body--with monitoring but not penalizing power, no defined budget, and nine of 14 members appointed by the governor--led the project's closest neighbors, represented by the Dean Street Block Association, to opt out of the settlement that led to the new timetable to deliver the affordable housing by 2025.

The provision for penalties for delay in the housing, but no new ones regarding construction violations, left the impression that construction oversight is less of a priority.

According to a gubernatorial statement:
Additionally, the deal will create a board, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, to provide input on development, housing, and community impact throughout the completion of the project.
As I wrote, the subsidiary represents a step forward on the oversight issue, but not the decision-making body that the BrooklynSpeaks coalition sought, nor what it had pushed Assemblyman Walter Mosley to propose, though both now call this an acceptable compromise.

Nor does the new structure have the proposed stakeholder council that presumably would channel more local impact.

The CDC, as noted in the excerpt at right, will review proposed changes to the plan and advise the Empire State Development (ESD) board, as well as monitor the developer's compliance with public commitments, and monitor and respond to construction impacts and quality of life issues.

However, a new board is hardly needed to alert the ESD board about corner-cutting on construction and operation of Atlantic Yards. That's obvious from the Atlantic Yards Watch incident reports and other news/Twitter/311 reports.

A CDC vs. an Authority or a Trust

Even the nomenclature sends a signal, I'd suggest, about the tension between construction and oversight. Though the term "community development corporation" is consistent with other ESD subsidiaries, it reflects a commitment to construction.

An Atlantic Yards Development Trust, as in a bill most recently proposed by Mosley (and previously by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries), would have layered in a sense of duty or obligation. And an Atlantic Yards Authority--echoing the Battery Park City Authority--would emphasize responsibility.

Forest City's happy with new "alignment"

Forest City Ratner surely didn't want tough oversight. Note the CEO's statement, in the 6/27/14 press release regarding the settlement:
MaryAnne Gilmartin, President and Chief Executive Officer of Forest City Ratner Companies said, “FCRC is very pleased to commit to an accelerated schedule for building out Atlantic Yards. We have worked tirelessly to move the project forward. With our new development partner Greenland USA on board we anticipate starting an all affordable residential building by the end of this year and another in June of 2015. We recognize the critical need to bring affordable housing to market and are proud to deliver on this public good with our state, city and community partners. Today is very much a new day for the Atlantic Yards project. We are excited to move forward with a great partner, an aggressive building schedule and stronger community alignment.”
(Emphases added)

Note that affordable housing, however much Gilmartin's calls it a "public good," is a profit-making effort, and the tweaking of the income bands for the next two subsidized towers--to skew toward middle-income households--is part of that. And, of course, condo towers are being brought "to market" at the same time.

Gilmartin said nothing about the new AY CDC. She likely doesn't consider it a significant burden. 

Her reference to a "stronger community alignment" seemingly points to the long-critical community groups--led by and connected to BrooklynSpeaks--that supported to the settlement and gave up their right to sue, not only on the fair housing issues that provoked the settlement, but all claims regarding Atlantic Yards as of 6/27/14. (They can still sue if the agreement is not "materially complied with," though that leaves wiggle room.)

In other words, after getting the Shanghai government-owned Greenland Group as a partner willing to build faster, Forest City had to get community groups on their side or at least off the table.

They've largely done so, with representatives of the Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) and the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) defending the settlement, however flawed, as the best deal possible.

In an 8/10/14 interview with City and State,  FAC Executive Director Michelle de la Uz said "there seemed to be some alignment about wanting to deliver the affordable housing faster. And we wanted to see if we could get some alignment on some other things that we wanted."

But there was no negotiation regarding the actual affordability of the units, which meant a flawed achievement. And there was apparently alignment regarding an oversight body with more teeth. 

The tension

The emphasis on housing suggests that, if and when the imperatives of construction--and the provision of politically potent "affordable housing"--come up against impacts of that construction, the former becomes a priority.

And the tight fit means the closest neighbors bear the brunt. In some ways, it's good to require a 16-foot-high barrier around the southeast block of the project site, to protect neighbors from the noise of the construction.

It's part of some tightened requirements for mitigation of construction impacts.

However, as far as I know, it was not disclosed or discussed during the environmental review that the erection of the barrier would require encroachment on significant parts of Dean Street, Carlton Avenue, and Vanderbilt Avenue.

Where's the teeth?

At a recent community meeting 10/30/14 (previewed here), residents asked Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, who signed the agreement on behalf of BrooklynSpeaks, about the teeth in the agreement. (Here are videos of the meeting, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)

The teeth were "basically the commitments in the Atlantic Yards project agreements," Veconi responded, "everything from building the project, how it should be designed… the CDC is responsible for overseeing all of that, and has a fiduciary obligation under the [state] Public Officers Law to report potential noncompliance to ESDC."

He suggested "that’s a significant responsibility… particularly when you consider that there will be people who are appointed by our own local elected officials, and will have some insight into what is really happening on the ground."

Then again, a new board is hardly needed to point to incidents that are already being reported.

Veconi also noted that, though Atlantic Yards is a state project, construction activities are overseen by city, "so there’s an important coordinating function that was desperately lacking." He suggested it was important to message elected officials "that it’s very important to focus on that construction impact."

Then again, we've been down that road. In 2011, the mayor appointed Lolita Jackson to oversee arena construction, which then Council Member Letitia James interpreted as an ombudsperson. According to Jackson's LinkedIn page, she was project manager for the Barclays Center. And, according to a consultant's report, many corners were cut during construction.

"We believe now that community members and elected officials should be engaging ESDC, the City and Forest City Ratner," Veconi said, to ensure that the new CDC can "effectively coordinate among agencies responsible for regulating construction." Then again, that was already the state's job.

Affordability vs. oversight?

At the same time, as de la Uz said, there's a need for continued advocacy to ensure that the future affordable housing reaches lower income levels. That raises a few questions:

  • will the new AY CDC be focused on achieving more affordable housing?
  • if so, does the board ask more from the developer or push for more subsidies?

de la Uz noted that that the AY CDC didn't have to be included as part of the settlement. "We could have had an agreement just on affordability," she said. "Because BrooklynSpeaks is a coalition, we saw the value of trying to advance both goals."

She noted, however, that her organization, focused on economic and social justice, has different goals from neighborhood civic groups. "When our interests align, we absolutely positively should move forward," she said. "As it relates to ensuring that this communities are livable for people, that it’s sustainable, affordable, our interests align."

Will those interests align in the long run regarding the CDC?

Who'll be on the AY CDC board?

The governor has nine appointees to the board, five of whom may be city or state employees. In other words, the Chairperson of the AY CDC likely will be a city or state official with close ties to the governor.

While the other five will be appointed by the Mayor, Brooklyn Borough President, Council Speaker, Senate President, and Assembly Speaker, in consultation with local legislators.

So it will be interesting to see how many representatives are essentially there to implement the governor's agenda, how many will be stressing affordable housing, and how many will focus on construction oversight.

At a public meeting, Mosley said he and fellow legislators had recommended several appointees to both Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and the governor's office. Among the names cited were de la Uz, Michael Cairl (a project manager who formerly headed the Park Slope Civic Council, part of BrooklynSpeaks), and Stuart Pertz (an architect who advised BrooklynSpeaks).

At the 10/30/14 meeting, Veconi said "it’s unlikely that any of the people who are standing in front of you now will be on the CDC." He apparently didn't know that de la Uz--a member of the City Planning Commission, appointed by de Blasio--had been previously mentioned publicly as a nominee.

One name to watch for is Jaime Stein, Director of Pratt Institute’s M.S. in Sustainable Environmental Systems, who was supported by the Dean Street Block Association--as they told ESD at a recent public meeting--and is clearly seen as a nominee focusing on oversight.

The block association, by withdrawing from PHNDC and criticizing the settlement, is surely seen by the state and Forest City as an adversary of sorts. On the other, they have significant legitimacy because they are among those most impacted by construction.

Waiting to dispel doubts

During the 10/30/14 meeting, Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association suggested that a representative of the community or the CDC should be able to go to ESD meetings regarding construction coordination for Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park. He asked de la Uz if she agreed.

"I understand how that would help build trust," she responded, noting that it was atypical, since "the government agency is supposed to be representing the public in those meetings. I think it’s a very reasonable request, given the history." I think it's unlikely to happen, but if it does, it will be significant.

"I appreciate that people want more on accountability," said de la Uz at another moment in the discussion. "I deeply appreciate it… until the CDC is up and running, there’s going to be tremendous doubt… as to whether we’re going to see any of the accountability we’ve all been advocating."

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous10:30 AM

    Say it ain't so Joe Chan...who spoke weeks ago about deadlines, but wouldn't give a date.

    Who's on first at Empire State Development Corporation? Abbott & Costello or Chan & Adam?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have inquired, and was told last week the meeting had not been set.

      Delete