At second meeting of Atlantic Yards CDC, questions about monitoring project, what it might look like, managing big arena events, and adjusting green wall
But a few members on the board, set up last year to monitor public commitments regarding the project, asked pressing questions about how Empire State Development (ESD), the AY CDC’s parent, goes about its job.
It was revealed that ESD has closely tracked complaints and incidents only beginning a few months ago, and the state agency acknowledged it has no rendering of what the project would look like in full.
Also, the board heard from several residents about continued irritants, including Barclays Center events that spill out into the neighborhood and the massive 16-foot green fence that aims to block construction noise/dust but also encroaches on Carlton Avenue and Dean Street.
Expect more discussion at the next meeting in two months, including regarding the prospect--as raised by the AY CDC president--of a 16-foot wall surrounding the entire project site (or, presumably, the locations for construction).
The board was set up as part of the settlement last year that led to a new timetable to deliver affordable housing by 2025. The board is only advisory, though advocates had earlier requested a dedicated entity to oversee the project.
Update: Here are Board Materials and the President's Report.
Chair (Adams stays) and budget (paid by developer)
Even one institutional vote came with a small surprise. Though the board ratified the previous vote by parent ESD to allow the AY CDC chair—if the ESD CEO—not be subject to the New York City residency requirement otherwise required of board members, Kenneth Adams, the Brooklynite and former ESD CEO, will remain as chair of the subsidiary.
Adams now heads the state’s tax and finance office, while a Buffalo developer, Howard Zemsky, has been named CEO of ESD.
The AY CDC’s budget, it was disclosed, is funded 90% by a periodically replenished imprest account, maintained by ESD and funded by the project developer—not unlike the way costs are shifted for the ESD’s hiring of environmental consultants and outside lawyers.
“I can't think…of too many other situations where the developer is covering the expenses of the subsidiary,” Adams observed, because in most other cases the state subsidiary is set up to act like a developer.
Can the CDC augment its budget if needed to cover additional services? Yes, the board of directors could amend the budget, said the ESD’s Joe Chan, Executive VP, Real Estate and Public/Private Partnerships.
There is no developer veto over consultants, said ESD attorney Robin Stout, responding to a question of board member Barika Williams.
Tracking impacts, but only recently
Board member Jaime Stein asked about a report given to the board that compiled incident reports regarding the project received directly by ESD or via Forest City Ratner (or, more precisely, Greenland Forest City Partners), Atlantic Yards Watch, or 311. Community relations staffer Nicole Jordan has created a spreadsheet of such impacts, explained AY CDC President Marion Phillips III.
Stein noted that Phillips had referenced previous Atlantic Yards Quality of Life Committee meetings—since renamed Community Updates—as providing helpful information. “The log we have starts January 2015,” she noted. “Is it possible to get more?”
Jordan “joined us less than a year ago,” Phillips replied. “We did not have this report... We don't really have a quantifiable record... It would not be a fair representation.” In other words, despite many concerns and complaints about the impacts of construction and arena operations, there’s no official log.
In response to a question from board member Tamara McCaw, Phillips said ESD was assessing how to make the document public.
Stein asked how often ESD confers with consultants that monitor the environmental commitments. Rachel Shatz, ESD’s VP, Planning and Environmental Review, explained that some commitments (such as double-pane windows and vibration monitoring) in the Memorandum of Environmental Commitments are overseen by the developer’s consultant, Remedial, while others are overseen by ESD’s consultant, HDR, which is on site two days a week.
“How is improvement measured?” asked Stein, a Pratt Institute academic whose appointment on the board—by Mayor Bill de Blasio—was pushed by the Dean Street Block Association, representing near neighbors of the project.
Phillips pointed to fewer complaints from the community. Another metric, suggested Adams, was the percentage of closed or resolved complaints, and the speed by which they are resolved. (I’d say some people with concerns either have given up or don’t know how to file complaints.)
Shatz said “we realized there was room for improvement,” which includes new training programs for contractors, the requirement that Greenland Forest City hire an on-site environmental monitor outside their company, and that they “provide to us their means and methods for doing their job.”
(The changes, it should be noted, also came after a blistering report from a consultant critiqued oversight during arena construction.)
Stein observed that it was important to measure improvements, since resolution of community complaints shouldn't be the only metric.
Phillips also revealed that an ESD staffer, Greg Lynch, has been transferred internally and is “helping on the ground” and “on the ground daily.” (He's never been mentioned previously.)
Williams said it was important to reach out to more transient neighborhood residents so they know where to report concerns.
What project might look like
“Is there a way to get current rendering of entire project?” asked Williams, who was appointed by the City Council Speaker, at the recommendation of Council Member Laurie Cumbo.
“We don't have anything for the entire site,” responded Shatz. Indeed, as Phillips pointed out, there are currently renderings for only four buildings—two on the arena block (B2, B3) and two on the southeast block (B11, B14).
“It would be good to ask Forest City if we can get a current project rendering,” observed Williams, “to help people understand what this looks like from a street view.”
“If it exists, I'll be more than happy to ask,” Phillips said. Chan noted that the Design Guidelines describe the “fairly broad envelope of what can be built and where.”
The issue Williams raised reflects an ongoing challenge—there have rarely been street-level renderings of the project but rather a helicopter perspective that portrays urban sculpture.
Public comments: board conflict
When it came time for public comments, which came exclusively from residents near the project site, the board listened but was not charged to respond; Phillips said questions would be addressed on the ESD web site.
Steve Ettlinger raised the issue of the seeming blatant conflict of interest, given that two board members, Bertha Lewis of The Black Institute (and formerly of ACORN) and Sharon Daughtry of the Downtown Brooklyn Neighborhood Alliance, are from groups that signed the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement, and describe themselves as “partners” with the developers.
“Is it not problematic to have two board members... who have had or now have direct financial relations with the developer?” Ettlinger asked. “I would like to know if, in your eyes, that is not a problem.”
(Neither Daughtry nor Lewis were present. Nor were board members Shawn V. Austin nor Julene Beckford. That meant nine of 13 board members were present, including Chan and Adams. One seat remains to be filled.)
Public comments: arena impacts
Ettlinger also pointed to the “complete disaster” last Tuesday involving a private event at the arena, in which some 270 buses inundated the area.
“I wonder why is it that any major event from the Barclays Center involves a pronouncement from the Barclays Center that such and such will be happening... end of discussion,” observed Jim Vogel, an aide to state Senator Velmanette Montgomery. “The place was flooded with school buses.”
Peter Krashes encouraged ESD to have a staffer not merely at 55 Hanson Place, a state office building, but “maybe right next to the site, in a storefront.” He also asked for a map of the areas eligible for noise attenuation assistance, including double-paned windows and air conditioning.
He encouraged AY CDC to work on protocols for arena events. “This is a special situation where you have an arena located next to residents,” he said. “You want to make sure you don't have what’s happened last week.”
Wayne Bailey, who lives at the nearby Newswalk condo and also leads the 78th Precinct Community Council, warned that construction has taken away staging areas. “The biggest complaint I'm getting,” he said, is “there is no way to do these events and not close the streets.”
Public comments: windows and fence
Elisabeth Martin said that the promised double-pane windows—according to her research—insulate against cold or heat but “do not claim to insulate from noise.” (I'm not sure about that.)
Patti Hagan said that she was alarmed by the 16-foot wall and the possibility that it could pose the same dangers as a construction site in the West Village where a piece of flying wood killed a woman.
Managing the tensions
Board member Rachel Gold asked about the wall and the glass. Shatz said they were advised by ESD’s consultants as remedies.
Does the board, asked board member Monsignor Kieran Harrington, have the authority to require changes?
No, said Adams, the board is advisory. Harrington observed that, with the fence, “It seems like there were a couple of competing interests.” For example, a lower barrier might be achievable if community members accepted more noise.
Phillips said the fence in Prospect Heights is more secure than the one in the West Village. “The reason it's in the street,” he said, was to accommodate the six-foot brackets that keep it safe in high winds. (I thought it was also to accommodate equipment.)
"We may end up having to have a 16-foot wall around the entire project,” Phillips observed.
Harrington wondered if the wall could be supported “in a different way at a higher cost.”
If the wall were lowered, it would expose more residents to noise, said Shatz. (As far as I can tell, most of the critics want it moved back, not lowered.)
Shatz also said the fire department is not “experiencing difficulties” with their emergency vehicles. Some in the audience, perhaps mindful of videos of delayed fire trucks, scoffed.
Adams agreed the next AY CDC meeting, scheduled for May 19, would explore the history/rationale for the 16-foot fence, and also discuss noise attenuation.
“The question is: it be moved further into the site,” observed board member Linda Reardon, who lives in Prospect Heights “Even if it were a few feet, it would be of great advantage to [traffic] throughput and the trees.”
I'd add that the competing interests also involve the size of the project. A somewhat scaled down project would create less noise/dust and therefore not require such interventions.
Working with the arena
Stein noted concerns about “large-scale events” at the arena and asked if the board could be briefed by Terence Kelly, the arena’s community affairs manager.
“We can send out their regular schedule of events,” Phillips said, “and request that Terence make a presentation.”
That, I think, will get them only so far. As of now, the schedule omits events that are not publicly ticketed, even if they stand to attract large audiences. Moreover, Kelly’s pre-event message regarding the March 17 event misleadingly downplayed the potential impact.
Concerns I raised
I took the opportunity to make a public comment, observing that I might get more answers via this process than by submitting questions as a journalist.
I asked whether the board had gotten information about:
- the death of a worker on-site in February
- Forest City’s plan to re-start work at B2 by realigning only the tenth-floor modules
- the delays in constructing the green roof, which means that the Flatbush Avenue crane will be erected while the Atlantic Avenue crane is still there, contrary to original plans.