Monday, February 09, 2015

At first Atlantic Yards CDC meeting, guarded optimism; still, nothing can be done about narrowed street vexing neighbors

Also see coverage of the AY CDC board membership and the plans and prospects for the B1 tower at the arena plaza.

It was, at least, a start.

The inaugural meeting of the long-delayed (and then delayed again) Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation, set up to monitor the project and oversee public commitments, took place on Friday, drawing a small but lively crowd and nearly all the newly empaneled board members.

And while the board seems to reflect the priorities of the Atlantic Yards-supporting Cuomo administration--four state officials are members--and other AY supporters (two CBA partners, one BAM staffer) surely vetted by developer Forest City Ratner, it does include one member suggested by impacted community members.

The very fact that the board was there to listen led to some guarded optimism from residents, even some historically critical of the project. And a follow-up meeting March 23 should tackle more issues.

Then again, complaints from neighbors about "earthquakes" in their houses and a dangerously narrow street led Forest City CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin to sympathetically "validate" their concerns but say there was nothing they could do.

It was a reminder that the untoward impacts faced by the closest neighbors result from the state approving a project, as one architect put it, with a "preposterous amount of square footage." And most board members seem like they are just getting up to speed on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Brooklyn.

(Entertaining moment: Forest City partner Bertha Lewis is among those who haven't absorbed the project's name change, at one point referencing "Atlantic Yards or Pacific Heights or whatever" and at another calling it "Atlantic Yards, Pacific whatever it is now." The AY CDC itself is proof of the confusion.)

Leading off

Forest City's Ashley Cotton (in red) and MaryAnne
Gilmartin meet board member Liz Harris. 
The meeting (webcast), which started at 4:10 pm  was held at Long Island University, which itself is a partner with the Barclays Center, a sign of developer Forest City Ratner's extensive ties--or, maybe tentacles--in Brooklyn.

Forest City and its partner, Greenland USA, brought at least six staffers and consultants to the meeting. As shown in the photo at right, Forest City's Ashley Cotton, in red dress, and CEO Gilmartin, circled the boardroom table to greet each board member.

The meeting--which included a web video link from ESD headquarters in Manhattan, with several staffers and officers present, as well as one board member attending by phone--began with a significant amount of boilerplate: ratification of bylaws, appointment of officers, adoption of procurement guidelines, and approval of pre-qualified counsel.

At about 4:50 pm, ESD CEO Kenneth Adams, who is leaving to head Cuomo's tax and finance office, asked board members to publicly introduce themselves. Also introducing herself was new AY CDC executive director Tobi Jaiyesimi.

President's report

Marion Phillips III, ESD senior VP for community relations and government affairs, is president of the AY CDC. He offered a quick overview of the project.

“The second portion of my presentation will be done by MaryAnne Gilmartin, from Forest City, who will give you the project details, which I think she's far more equipped to talk about the project that she’s going to successfully build,” Phillips declared.

(While it was certainly appropriate for Gilmartin to make a presentation, Phillips's language suggested a rather more seamless association between the developer and the state than may be healthy.)

“The site of the project really came about because the Brooklyn Dodgers left us," Phillips said. " That’s how far back this goes. …The railyard was there. Walter O’Malley was supposed to build a stadium there..... this project site has been an active redevelopment area for more than 50 years.”

That wasn't quite true. O'Malley sought to build a new stadium on the site that's now the Atlantic Center mall, not the railyard. (I pointed that out in a public comment.) And only part of the 22-acre site--the part including the railyard--is in the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area, while the properties on the south side of Dean Street and north side of Dean Street were added to ATURA.

Phillips then went through the history of the project, noting various milestones, from the announcement in 2003 to the agreement signed last June with several community groups from the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, which was contemplating a lawsuit on fair housing grounds about the delayed buildout.

The agreement requires two all affordable towers to get started by next June, and that all the affordable housing be built by 2025, not 2035 as previously allowed. (The original promise in 2006 and 2009, when the project went through approvals, was a ten-year buildout.) Along with the new timetable, the state agreed to establish the AY CDC, though it is charged to monitor but not actively oversee the project, as once requested.

He noted that Greenland--the US arm of a Chinese conglomerate owned by the government of Shanghai--and Forest City formalized a joint venture in June, and are building a new railyard and a new arena green roof. He also noted that seven properties were taken by eminent domain recently.

After board members were given a chance to ask questions--none--they opened it up to the public. Beyond my comment on O'Malley, resident Robert Puca pointed out that Forest City got the advantage of direct subsidies, tax breaks, a zoning override, and land at below-market rates.

Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) and BrooklynSpeaks pushed back on Phillips's statement that "project opponents" had sued to force a Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate the impacts of a delayed buildout. "I want to state respectfully for the record that some of the organizations would resist the characterization of us as project opponents."

Indeed, the BrooklynSpeaks coalition was more about "mend it, don't end it." The legal ruling was a response also to a similar lawsuit filed by project opponents, including Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn. (Note that I don't think Veconi "waged a bitter campaign against Atlantic Yards," as the Times once said.)

Phillips acknowledged that Veconi and Michelle de la Uz, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, "worked with us very hard" on the settlement, and said he'd revise the characterization.

He also introduced the ESD team, including project manager Sam Filler, community relations manager Nicole Jordan, and new hire Tobi Jaiyesimi, executive director of the AY CDC.

Handout from Forest City Ratner; note that green indicates office space

Forest City presentation

Forest City's Gilmartin took the podium and provided a slide with a tentative building by building schedule. She introduced her team, including Cotton, Jane Marshall, and community liaison manager Roberta Fearon.

She didn't mention spokesman Joe DePlasco who was in the audience, but she did introduce Scott Solish, a former staffer at the New York City Economic Development Corporation who represents Greenland, as Director-Development.

Gilmartin declared that Forest City's goal is "to build as quickly as possible and to be a good neighbor," both statements that deserve some footnoting.

Forest City, as executives have said, will build as quickly as the market will allow, and its performance as a neighbor has generated considerable skepticism.

Gilmartin noted that 80% of arena workers are from Brooklyn, with one-third from public housing, but didn't cite the typical weekly compensation. She said that, with "our partners" at the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance--whose executive director, Sharon Daughtry, was named to the AY CDC--they had distributed more than 28,000 free tickets.

She showed images of two buildings under construction, 535 Carlton Avenue (affordable rentals) and 550 Vanderbilt (condos), as well as the all-affordable 30 Sixth Avenue at the southeast corner of the arena block. She noted they'd start a new condo building shortly after that.

The modular plan, and more

Gilmartin said that Forest City had rehired about 115 of the 160 workers dismissed at the modular factory, formerly FCS Modular, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and was hiring new workers.

"We hope to be delivering mods directly to the B2 site in the spring," she said, acknowledging "this building has taken far longer than we hoped." She predicted a finish "sometime in the middle of 2016."

"I often get a question about whether we still believe in modular," she said. "We have a heavy investment... we think it was a good idea, just a bad partnership arrangement with Skanska." the former partner now locked in litigation.

The only way to justify modular, she said, is "to have a building standing and point to that building."

She said the green roof structure should be done by the summer, with the sedum added later for fall completion, but didn't explain that it was provoked, in part, by the need to tamp down bass escaping from the arena during certain concerts.

Gilmartin said that Forest City and Greenland had posted a completion guarantee to finish a new railyard and begun construction on foundations for the platform needed for vertical development over the railyard, and are now building the new west portal for trains to enter Atlantic Terminal.

They're also spending "tens of millions" on infrastructure, including new sewer and water mains.

Greenland, she said, had "brought a lot to the table," not just equity, but experience in infrastructure. "There are 15 folks from Greenland that have joined our team" at Forest City headquarters in MetroTech.

Some questions

Board member Barika Williams, who works on affordable housing issues at the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development, asked about the median incomes expected for each building and the targets for such buildings.

Gilmartin promised a package including the current AMIs and "the ACORN bands," a reference to the 2005 Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding signed with ACORN. Unmentioned is that there's a major disconnect between the pledged affordability in the MOU and the less affordable units in the next two below-market buildings.

de la Uz asked if they were on target with the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development to get the next affordable building (B3, or 30 Sixth Avenue) started in June.

Gilmartin said yes, though she acknowledged that weather has made it been "extremely challenging" to work on the green roof--there's a crane at the B3 site. "The building is being designed," she said. "The intention and plan is to be on time."

Resident Wayne Bailey of the Newswalk condo, which is adjacent to the Vanderbilt Yard, asked if there would be nighttime work at the railyard. (In the past it has meant noise and bright lights that disturb residents' sleep.)

"Right now we're not planning on it," Gilmartin said, though she acknowledged "schedule creep" could provoke such work. "If there is a plan, we need to get out early and explain why."

Elisabeth Martin, who lives across from the 535 Carlton site, said she and neighbors were considered about reports about retail stores on Carlton Avenue. Gilmartin said they'd provide the plan.

The impact on the street

Charlie Recknagel, who also lives on Carlton Avenue, pointed to the huge green wall built to buffer sound from the 535 Carlton site.

"Forget everything else, forget the earthquakes in the morning at 7 am, it's such a dangerous situation," he said, citing the competition for limited space among vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

"Someone is going to get hurt," he said. "I get off my stoop, I have to look both ways." There's no way for anyone to make deliveries or even pick up garbage.

"I want to validate what you said," Gilmartin responded. "It’s a 16 foot wall [which has] dimensions and width defined by the height," and required to be anchored properly

"That is a requirement of us to build that fence that high," she said. "It's enormous. I can’t disagree. I don't know if it's a question we can answer. We were required to build that structure... We hugged that site without creating structural concerns about the ability of that wall to stand up."

Similarly, when resident Patti Hagan said the "extreme narrowing of Dean Street" had led to fire trucks and buses being stuck," Adams referred to Gilmartin's statement said the fence couldn't be moved.

Ventilating public concerns

Noting that such concerns also will be expressed to the Atlantic Yards Quality of Life meeting/committee, to be held Tuesday, Feb. 10, board member Jaime Stein, a Pratt Institute academic, asked if a log of issues and complaints could be provided to the board.

Phillips said both Forest City and ESD keep such logs.

The AY CDC responsibilities
Another Carlton Avenue resident, Susan Marcus, said neighbors wanted access to data that explain the "earthquakes" felt in their houses. One resident, who hired a lawyer, got such data, and "we're told they're off the charts... We are certainly feeling our buildings shake at all hours of the day."

"That body of work exists," Gilmartin said, indicating they needed to make sure it gets in the right hands

Williams asked if questions about impacts were supposed to be referred to the Quality of Life meeting. Adams said that board members, while invited to those meetings, are not expected to go, but ESD staff would provide information.

A bit later, Veconi got up expressed concern that the AY CDC not lose sight of its obligation to oversee compliance with environmental commitments. And while the Quality of Life meeting is important, "I would be disappointed, actually more than disappointed, to see that meeting become the prime venue for dealing with environmental impacts," he said.

Adams called that "a very important point" and noted that the AY CDC does not replace ESD's responsibilities.

Puca asked if information from environmental monitors at the site--Forest City, the state--would be be disseminated.

"The directors will have access to most of that information," Phillips responded.

Asked if it was possible to make that data public, Phillips responded, "Unfortunately, it can’t be made public."

"We'll look at it and get back to you," Adams said placatingly.

A tentative assessment

Tracy Collins, representing the Dean Street Block Association, submitted a written statement, including references to several issues cited on Atlantic Yards Watch.

"First of all, I'm just glad we're finally here," he added. "A lot of people know that many of us have been opposed and fighting this process for a long time. But I guess I’m here to basically be surprised and to feel hopeful this will change. I live right on Dean Street. I’m constantly bombarded by construction impacts, traffic, crowds, Justin Bieber was a nightmare... I thank you for volunteering for a thankless job… I hope there’s a lot more transparency."

Collins said he'd like a very simple process to talk with an on-site monitor, rather than have to "figure out a maze of government agencies: or go through 311. "Hopefully this is the start of something good." (The block association withdrew from the PHNDC so as not to endorse the compromise that led to the new timetable and what was seen as a insufficiently rigorous oversight effort.)

Bailey, the spokesman for the new Barclays Center Impact Zone Alliance, said the mayor's office, thanks to Jonathan Viguers, who works in the Community Affairs Office, had agreed to respond to some issues, including traffic problems in the neighborhood and has imposed a moratorium on film shoots."Our appointment, Ms. Stein, we appreciate it, thank you very much," he said.

de la Uz got the final words. "I want to echo what Tracy said," she said. "This is a very significant step forward... I'm glad all the Quality of Life issues were brought up." She said the board "obviously" would look into those issues as well as the public commitments regarding jobs and affordable housing. "I'm glad everyone is here to keep an eye on that."

3 comments:

  1. FFS. Maybe if some of these non-opponents HAD BEEN ACTUAL OPPONENTS, we would've stopped this ridiculous boondoggle.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agree, Eric.
      But then they wouldn't have gotten their SEAT AT THE TABLE, and obviously that was more important to them than... anything.

      Delete
  2. Daniel Goldstein2:31 PM

    FFS indeed, Eric.

    It is of paramount importance for everyone to know that Mr. Veconi was not an opponent of Atlantic Yards.

    ReplyDelete