Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The railyard runaround: developers gave public and electeds different timeline, claim dubiously that change came only after last June

They didn’t tell us that Atlantic Avenue would be constricted a lot longer than they announced in June 2014.

In fact, the developers of Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park misled us for a year, and last week provided an explanation I find quite dubious.

More than a year ago, officials at Greenland Forest City Ratner changed the timeline for work on the Vanderbilt Yard, guaranteeing an extension of barriers and constricted traffic on Atlantic Avenue.

They shifted the date for completing the West Portal—a connection from the railyard to Atlantic Terminal that requires work under Atlantic Avenue near Sixth Avenue outside the Barclays Center—from early 2016 to late 2017.

They just forgot to tell the public, the press, and the Community Boards.

They did, apparently, tell some elected officials of their new plan, but they did so in such an oblique way none of the officials shared the information or even recognized it was news.

”There’s nothing about the West Portal that's changed,” Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton said at a meeting last month, after which I described the delays as “vexing.”

(Last month, they described West Portal work as lasting through 2017, but in the most recent document clarify that it the work should continue through July 2017, with railyard reconfiguration lasting through 2017.)

Cotton pledged to discuss the issue at a future meeting and did so at the barely-attended Oct. 14 Community Update meeting.

Explaining the work

“Let's just think about it,” Cotton said. “We're going to finish West Portal railyard work [a newly configured yard to store and service LIRR trains], the East Portal… then we're building a platform, then we’re building buildings."

"I don’t mean to be gloom and doom… the idea that the MPT [the barriers known as the Maintenance and Protection of Traffic] moves an inch and inch… This is ongoing at the site for a long time.” (The presentation is at bottom.)

In other words, they should have told us not only that Atlantic Avenue would be constricted not only for West Portal work—the timeline of which has now been extended—but for the next decade.

Latest timeline
“We’re in this together, we appreciate your patience,” Cotton said to a crowd that included far more people from the developer and state government than the community. “We are always going to give you the dates we have and all that kind of stuff,… December 2017 is relevant, sort of, but then we're moving on to the next thing and the next thing. That's my best way of delivering tough news, but this is not like, ‘Oh, yay, we got to December 2017 and suddenly the MPTs start going away, particularly as it relates to these railyards.’”

Timeline announced June 2014
Cotton noted that, last month, resident Gib Veconi pointed out that the work was supposed to be done by next spring. He said"you may remember a pitch to get Democratic National Convention in there by the summer of 2016.”

In other words, the switcheroo practiced last year preceded the energetic campaign to bring the DNC to Brooklyn.

That means the developer knew what a mess a main artery around the arena would be at the time of the convention but did not say so.

Describing the work

Cotton noted that last month people pointed to a change in completion date for the West Portal from what was stated in a presentation released 6/2/14.

Cotton noted that Greenland Forest City had not made a “big announcement” last month, because it didn’t think it had real news to share.

“We went back and figured out what happened,” she recounted. “What's the next big thing that happened last June? We signed [a joint venture agreement] with our dear partners, Greenland, we posted a completion guarantee for the MTA, and we got really deep in the railyard.”

“We realized that, if you are going to start building all around this area near the West Portal and then the railyard work.. and then you’re going to build foundations for a platform and building... we were going to be going in and ripping things up that we’ve already built..”

“So we figured out a more efficient, more sophisticated, smarter way to do this... so we added scope to what we call the West Portal work, and therefore changed the date of completion,” she said. That doesn’t mean delays, it just means a shift, with more work up front. “if you add platform foundation, building foundations to what we’re going in the bed of that railyard work, it will take us longer...thus December 2017.”

“Super sorry we didn’t make it clear here,” Cotton said. “We actually called all the politicians and notified them. And obviously it was all done with total approval from the MTA.”

Reasons for skepticism

I'm not convinced. How could Forest City and Greenland, after June 2014, somehow come up with a new plan?

After all, Forest City in April proposed a new December 2017 timetable for the railyard.

The plan was approved by the MTA in late June. In other words, a change had been percolating for a while. (I could find no record of any additional plan developed after June, and Cotton would not provide more detail.)

Bizarrely enough, by the way, none of this was subject to review in the court-ordered Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement completed last year, because the railyard work was considered part of Phase 1 of the project, not Phase 2.

A new component


Cotton described three pieces of work: the West Portal, railyard work, and the East Portal.

The East Portal? That term does not appear in any document regarding plans for Atlantic Yards construction. It appears only as a side reference in a few Construction Updates

The West Portal will provide an advantageous direct connection to the railyard, as opposed to the current East Portal, in which trains must go east of Vanderbilt Avenue and then reverse course back to the passenger terminal.

Because of the big cement structure that is the East Portal, the track behind it can only hold a 6-car train, while the other six storage tracks can hold an 8-car train. “In order to extend the track to have an 8-car train, we will modify the East Portal,” Cotton said, which requires removing the wall and moving the tracks. That will make a 56-car railyard.

That’s very interesting, because East Portal work was not contemplated—at least in public documents—when the replacement railyard was supposed to have 9 tracks with capacity for 76 cars, rather than the smaller railyard Forest City renegotiated in 2009.

Could it be that the smaller railyard requires work that was not even anticipated in the larger one?

Trying to drill down

When did they tell the politicians?

“We told all the politicians... like a year ago. That’s the thing… When I said I’m not breaking big news to you guys. It’s a total mess,” Cotton said rather matter of factly, “it’s my fault, I apologize.. but it is not a change in the schedule, where suddenly, the project’s farther out.. it's just that we decided to do more work up front.”

I got a copy of a document shared with elected officials. There’s no explicit statement about a change in plans, but one page does say 2017—not July 2017—regarding the railyard.

The document also states that the green roof would be completed by May 2015 (it's not done yet) and the B2 modular tower would be finished by December 2015 (it could take a year longer). In other words, all dates are subject to change.

At the meeting, I asked Cotton whether they could provide more detail on the work, how it’s expanded and the timetable. She said no.

I later sent an email asking which elected officials were told, and when. I didn't get an answer.

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