Monday, October 19, 2015

A Community Update meeting with virtually no community. Here’s why.

So, why did the Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Community Update meeting held Oct. 14, generate virtually no community attendance, even though some important information was conveyed?

Only three community members, plus one graduate student and this journalist, attended the meeting, held at the Shirley Chisholm State Office Building. There were far more people from developer Greenland Forest City Partners and Empire State Development (ESD), the state agency overseeing/shepherding the project.

It probably had something to do with ESD's decision to send a meeting confirmation exactly one business day beforehand. Or that ESD and developer Greenland Forest City Partners were very parsimonious with other information.

(Or, a reader reminds me, that the Community Board 2 and Community Board 6 general meetings were scheduled on the same night.)

No agenda was distributed beforehand, much less relevant documents regarding how Atlantic Avenue will be constricted for work well beyond 2017 (which, it seemed last month, was itself an extension from the previous 2016 date).

And while a bare agenda was distributed at the meeting, no relevant document were distributed there, so we had to rely on a slide presentation that was new to us, and posted only the day after.

In other words, the developer and the state created a somewhat absurdist experience that, at least on paper, may look like a responsible-enough performance.

Asking for minimal transparency

At the end of the meeting, I asked—with just a bit of cynicism in my voice—if it was possible to send out meeting announcements with a longer lead time, plus an agenda, and a document regarding the information to be discussed?

“If all those things are ready, I will absolutely send,” responded Nicole Jordan, Community Relations Director. (Keep in mind Empire State Development does issue agendas and board materials before its board meetings.)

Once, when these periodic meetings were part of what was called the Quality of Life Committee, community members were even asked to bring agenda items.

“It went from a community exchange to you talking at us,” commented resident May Taliaferrow. “That’s disappointing.”

“As the project moves forward, there’s a lot more to share,” ESD Senior VP Marion Phillips III responded, completely unruffled. “Back then, it made more sense” to have that exchange.

But they weren’t sharing very well.

Another exchange

Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) Executive Director Tobi Jaiyesimi confirmed that the next AY CDC meeting will be Oct. 20 at Long Island University.

(The AY CDC was supposed to monitor the project and provide input to the ESD board. Let's just say that only one AY CDC member had a representative at the Community Update meeting, which means everyone else will have to rely on a report from ESD staffers. Phillips is president of the AY CDC.)

After Jaiyesimi's announcement, resident Peter Krashes—commenting not just on that meeting but the schedule at large—observed, in rather mild tones, that it “would be helpful if there were notices on a more predictable basis.”

He noted that the August Community Update meeting was canceled with two days’ notice, and this meeting, though long calendared, was subject of a confirmation only two days before.

That, he said, makes it hard for community members to schedule themselves, and it “plays into not just a fatigue but a cynicism” about the state’s role, though “it’s in the state’s interest” to have such input. He suggested ten days’ notice.

Jaiyesimi said she'd share such concerns. “I appreciate that input.”

“A community update meeting when only a few people” can attend, Krashes said, “ends up not being a community update meeting.”

The low turnout, he said, was “not because of disinterest or what's at stake, that's because of a flaw in the way” the meetings have been scheduled. “We’re very happy to work with you, to work on attendance.”

I think I saw Jordan glare.

From the developer

As Forest City Ratner's Ashley Cotton went through the slide presentation, at one point, I asked her to slow down so I could take notes.

“There’s a lot of people here,” she said, suggesting I was slowing things down. (Well, there were at least nine people connected to the developer and five to the state.) “One of my team members can give you the page.”

“Why," I said, "don’t you just give it out beforehand so we can discuss them with you guys.”

The meeting was scheduled to go two hours. It lasted only 75 minutes, in part because there were so few people to ask questions, and those present hadn't had any opportunity to absorb the material.

At the end of the presentation, I asked, a little archly: “Would you consider just possibly preparing a document and sharing it before the meeting so people have a chance to wrap their heads around it?”

“Y’know it’s funny, we did, for that June 4th [2014] meeting,” responded Cotton, referring to a previous timetable announced for the railyard, with the document coming a day early. “In this case, I was scrambling a little bit, to get it done. So, we’re all on our own timelines, a little bit, sometimes. But, yes, I would certainly, possibly, consider that. And we’ve done it before. Particularly when we have it.”

Beckett again?

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