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AY CDC signs off on extending environmental monitor's contract. Neighbors (and a board member) say monitor's just not effective.

The meeting Wednesday March 29 of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) was relatively brief and mostly uneventful, but one sequence of exchanges encapsulated the ongoing tensions over the project—and the limits to the board's effectiveness as an advisor to Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority overseeing/shepherding the project.

The AY CDC board was asked to endorse the staff recommendation to extend for one year the ten-year contract of the consultant HDR, which serves as the environmental monitor for ESD. The contract value is $500,000, and the cost is reimbursed by the project developer.

As stated in the board materials (bottom), ESD had assumed it would conduct a new RFP for a potential replacement before HDR’s contract expired, the uncertain nature of the project’s phasing—notably, a stall in construction and brewing plans for a huge shift in bulk—argues for a short-term extension rather than a new solicitation and possibly a new monitor.

Board member Jaime Stein, who directs the Sustainable Environmental Systems program at the Pratt Institute and is consistently the board member most willing to push back on the parent agency, suggested that the board needed more time to review the scope of HDR’s work, and offer an opportunity for public comment. (Here's the webcast.)

“I've been in this role for almost two years,” Stein said, which means that after a year extension, “I probably will not be here... this is why I took the role. to have a meaningful impact” on monitoring quality of life issues. (She was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. I wonder if the developer would lobby him to appoint a more passive successor.)

The project, once assumed to last ten years, could last 30 years, Stein said, and impacts have shifted. “I think we need to use this as an opportunity to pause.”

Marion Phillips III, the AY CDC President and a ESD Senior VP, Community Relations, responded that to not continue the contract would be “borderline irresponsible,” because it could leave the project unmonitored.

“I'm questioning as to why this was not brought to us a year ago,” Stein responded, noting that she was asking only for a pause to examine the contract.

Is current monitoring enough?

HDR's scope of work
Phillips said the authority’s goal was to start the next process within six months. “If we change the scope of this contract, we'd need to re-issue the RFP, which means this contract could expire,” leaving the project unmonitored.

“It's just to continue what's been happening on the monitoring side,” chimed in Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo businessman who chairs the ESD board and also the AY CDC board. “My own observation is that this project is more heavily monitored than any other I've seen, by about a factor of five.”

“I think the monitoring that we have in place,” responded Stein, “although it is very well resourced… fails to meet the recurring persistent Quality of Life issues.”

Phillips said that they would reevaluate the monitoring in the next contract.

“I'm frustrated we didn't do this six months ago,” Stein said.

Board member Daniel Kummer acknowledged that Stein’s comments “have some merit,” but said, after hearing Phillips’s comments, he opposed the motion. “It’s really a very brief extension.”

Community concern

That was not exactly the posture of the few community members present at the daytime meeting.

“I’m very concerned about this,” said Dean Street resident Peter Krashes, who lives across from the site. For the first time, he learned HDR’s scope of work, “which is very narrow.” He said that scope didn’t cover air quality impacts last fall, such as a paint-like substance drifting in, or dust caused by trucks.

North Park Slope resident Steve Ettlinger noted that community members “bear a unique burden,” and suggested it was time to use public resources more efficiently.

Elisabeth Martin, who lives on across from the project on Carlton Avenue, echoed Krashes’s points. “The issues that we face are very scarcely reported by your staff,” she said. “Despite the fact that I gave you pictures of the dust, nothing was done, because the developer continued to send those trucks.” She also said that she and neighbors experienced cracks inside their buildings, without knowing what do so.

Stein’s motion for a pause got one more vote, from new board member Cy Richardson, an urban planner appointed by Borough President Eric Adams. But four gubernatorially-appointed board members, along with Zemsky, voted no. (Three other board members appointed by local elected officials didn’t attend.)

Board member Liz Harris joined Kummer in saying that the community comments should be taken into consideration.

Updates from ESD

Phillips finally acknowledged that a once-promised app—or digital solution—to report and monitor project impacts is dead. “I just have to fall on my sword... We just came out with a great idea... it is something that could not be integrated, and I apologize.”

He said ESD had considered social media monitoring companies like Keyhole and Digmind, and concluded they wouldn’t be effective. He said that direct communication with staff, as well as monitoring Atlantic Yards Watch—which is barely used lately—is effective enough.

New community relations staffer Jeremy Cooney said there were only eight incidents listed on the complaint log since last November, such as debris on the construction site or obstructed walkways.

Updates from the developer

Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton, representing Greenland Forest City Partners, provided a swift update on the project.

The 461 Dean and 535 Carlton towers have TCOs (temporary certificates of occupancy) for all floors, except for the “hoist units,” where the elevator on the outside the building used to be. The sidewalk bridge outside 461 Dean may be removed in a month. Both buildings have residents.

The 17-story condo building 550 Vanderbilt has a TCO for the first eight floors. A fence on the Dean Street site should be mostly gone, she said, except for the part that protects the open space construction.

The lottery for 38 Sixth, which like 535 Carlton is 100% affordable (though oriented to middle-income households), has closed, paving the way for tenant selection.

Cotton also showed a picture of construction at the Vanderbilt Yard, including tunnels known as the West Portal and East Portal, as well as foundations for future construction.

She offered no new schedule for any buildings or the overall project.

Regarding plans for Site 5 and the developer’s desire to get ESD to change the General Project Plan, the project’s governing document,”unfortunately, given litigation, those plans are still on hold.” But those are very big plans, to shift perhaps 760,000 square feet of approved bulk from Building 1--now occupied by the arena plaza--to Site 5, creating a giant two-tower project.

The Site 5 project could be three times the bulk of--and 50% taller than--the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building
Stein asked ESD to describe the process behind the expected Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), and asked if there were a budget to bring on technical experts for community workshop

“Does the board have ability to hire its own?” Phillips asked rhetorically. “That's the point of the EIS... it would be rather redundant to have two parallel EISs going on.”

Maybe, maybe not. If the AY CDC were seen—or saw itself—as representing the public, it could engage experts to critique the expected, well-massaged SEIS from ubiquitous consultant AKRF. After all, during the 2006 environmental review, that’s what the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods did.

A final question

In the final comment period, Martin asked who’d pay to repair the damages by vibration.

Zemsky said he couldn’t answer, not knowing the source or the cause. “I’m not a lawyer.”

“You are not responsible, no; you are responsible to give an answer,” Martin responded.

“Jeremy will be in touch,” Phillips chimed in.

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