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At community meeting on Atlantic Yards transportation issues, call for "buy-in" on Forest City Ratner's (delayed) plan, frustration that so little is in place, new study of baseline issues announced

A long-awaited meeting last night on community input regarding Atlantic Yards transportation issues--a prelude to a Transportation Working Group (TWG)--generated significant community frustration that so little was in place less than ten months before the Barclays Center arena begins operations.

“This project, and its arena, opens in ten months,” declared Gib Veconi, an activist in the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council and BrooklynSpeaks. “We just heard we haven't figured out where the satellite parking lots would be. By the same token, we don't know what happened with the sidewalk plan that shows narrower sidewalks, fewer travel lanes... We don't know what the parking plan for Block 1129 is, which is in the middle of a residential neighborhood..”

He further asked how Traffic Enforcement Agents (TEAs) would be deployed, and how the three police precincts that touch on the site would divide their work.

“Early next year,” responded Arana Hankin, Director, Atlantic Yards Project, for Empire State Development, the state agency in charge of the project. About 30 people attended the meeting at Brooklyn's Borough Hall.

But Hankin faced considerable criticism that too little had been revealed, and that a crucial Transportation Demand Plan (involving incentives to reduce use of cars, free MetroCards, cross-marketing with local businesses, remote parking, and more) would be made available “in the first quarter,” rather than, as promised earlier this year, by the end of 2011.

Community approval?

Indeed, Veconi galvanized the audience by proposing that the Transportation Demand Management (TDM) plan--which, unlike the forthcoming arena security and operations plans, requires approval by ESD and the city Department of Transportation (DOT)--be subject to community buy-in.

Many in the audience clapped, and Veconi suggested that the vote could be by those present, or by nominees of elected officials representing the neighborhoods around the project site.

“We can think about it,” Hankin said with a smile, in response to Veconi’s initial proposal.

Given the historic pattern with Atlantic Yards, as well as the state’s resistance to working with some individuals and organizations who are still suing over the state’s failure to study a 25-year project buildout, I’d say it’s unlikely. (The suit affects Phase 2 of the project, not the initial phase.)

Still, officials pledged that the TDM would be presented at an open public meeting for community input.

The working group will meet again soon, though a date was not set, nor was it clear how the group's committees would be structured. It will address issues including and beyond those in the TDM plan.

The TDM will be discussed, Hankin said, at the next Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting, which will be moved back to January after it was apparently moved to February after being initially scheduled for January.

And the TDM draft plan, or status update, will be publicly released, Hankin said, no later than February 15, as requested by Council Member Letitia James. (Here's coverage in Patch.)

New city role, new traffic baseline

There were two important indications of progress. First, Council Member James announced that a city official, Lolita Jackson, had been assigned to oversee city response to community issues involving Atlantic Yards.

Also, Department of Transportation representative Chris Hrones said that the agency has required updated data regarding traffic conditions around the site. The environmental review requires Forest City Ratner to conduct a study, after the arena opening, of traffic conditions, to help guide additional mitigations.

But the current baseline study is stale. “Given that baseline now is 2006, they've agreed, Forest City, to do a data collection endeavor in the spring that sets that baseline,” Hrones said.

That might help respond to Veconi's call for a contingency plan regarding issues that won’t be solved before the arena opens.

The arena, he noted, is sited at the Borough’s “worst traffic generator, and the second largest parking lot in Brooklyn is sited in the middle of a residential area... We've got to do more to mitigate that.”

FCR not present, some officials

Forest City Ratner was not invited, because this was seen as a of a preliminary strategy meeting, but the developer is expected at future meetings. Curiously, FCR official Michael Rapfogel, the company’s designated lurker at various events, was seen at Borough Hall before the meeting, chatting with New York Post reporter Rich Calder.

The meeting was chaired by Carlo Scissura, Borough President Marty Markowitz's special advisor (who stepped down from his chief of staff post so he could run for BP), with transportation analyst Luke DePalma joining him.

Along with James, there were representatives of the offices of Council Member Brad Lander, Council Member Steve Levin, Assemblymember Joan Millman, and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries. Other than James, they didn’t speak.

Also present were Ede Fox, a committee head on Community Board 8, and Community Board 2 District Manager Rob Perris.

Video coverage

While Borough Hall officials told me that photography was banned, as at Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet Meetings, such a message was not on the agenda, and no one interfered when one community member began shooting video.

What’s coming, and when

ESD planner Rachel Shatz pointed out that the arena can’t open without a TDM a plan: “ there has to be evidence the traffic can be managed. For example, Forest City is studying the inventory available in parking garages beyond the typical half-mile radius, as well as studying where fans would come from

“Forest City will be presenting something to the public by early next year,” Hankin said. “That doesn't mean it will be done.”

She said that, as with presentations regarding traffic changes, information will be provided first to elected officials, Community Boards, and the Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet, then to a wider meeting.

“In February I don't anticipate a draft plan,” Hankin said, just an update.

“That only gives about six months to get it to the community and to finalize it,” Scissura commented.

“We have a meeting with them this week,” Hankin said later. “The plan has to be before the public by early next year... It is an ongoing conversation, I am not demanding that they have it done by a specific date.” She said “we've given them a time frame,” indicating the first quarter of 2012.

Plan delayed?

“When the traffic pattern changes were announced in early summer, we were told it would be six months later” for the TDM plan, Perris pointed out, cautioning that “we should be be very careful” because of the tight time frame. “Some slippage is common in any project, but you have to draw the line.”

Why, asked Veconi, don’t we have a plan for Block 1129? “It's mind-boggling, to be honest with you,” he said.

Hankin smiled. “It would not take time at all to build,” she said, apparently indicating the pre-fab parking structure.

Need for changes

Sandy Balboza of the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association, noting her previous experiences on task forces, said she wanted to make sure this working group had meaningful input. She noted that the mitigation plan regarding Atlantic Avenue “encourages more traffic by making it easier to drive,” eliminating parking spots. “If this is going to work, I think the community that is impacted has to be at the table.”

Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors (and also No Land Grab) seconded Veconi’s call for faster action. Northbound traffic on Sixth Avenue in Park Slope, he said, “tends to back up quite a bit.”

Noting that Forest City was required by the city to briefly fund Traffic Enforcement Agents in response to other Atlantic Yards traffic changes, he asked when that requirement ended and whether “having those folks back would at least help a bit in managing traffic flow.”

Hrones said such TEA agents are tied to construction issues.As for an ongoing congestion issue, he said, “that's something we should discuss.”

Unanswered questions

Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association, and a leader of the Atlantic Yards Watch community initiative, said that he and others had posed many questions that remained unanswered, such as the impact of sidewalks more narrow than that disclosed in the environmental review, the reversal in plans to widen Sixth Avenue near the arena, the rumors of a multi-platform parking garage on Block 1129,

“I can think of only a few moments where project plans were modified based on community input,” he said.

“There are not answers to all these questions as of yet,” Hankin said, with a bit of edge in her voice.

“I understand folks on Dean Street and Carlton Avenue [next to the planned parking lot] are in a unique situation,” she said, noting that she had instituted biweekly conference calls with block associations. “We're being extremely responsive.”

“So. is there going to be a multistory platform on Block 1129?” Krashes asked, alluding to reports of a prefab structure.

It has not been finalized, Hankin replied.

Has ESDC done additional research on fewer lay-by lanes--areas where cars pull over to protect both exiting passengers and traffic flow--he asked?

Shatz gave a partial answer.

What about sidewalks narrowed on the arena block, as pointed out in community comments on the bollard plan submitted to DOT.

A response on the sidewalk issue will be sent out this week, said Hrones.

What happened, asked Krashes, to parking lots planned beyond Block 1129, or parking for the first residential building?

What next?

Scissura asked him to put together a list of unresolved issues, and send them to Hankin, with copies to him and James. He also suggested that the working group form committees to handle specific issues.

The larger issue, said Regina Cahill of the North Flatbush Business Improvement District, is that mitigation plans will have a ripple effect, such as pushing car traffic to adjacent neighborhoods.

Even the Brooklyn Navy Yard--which James suggested as a potential park and ride site--might be further developed in five years.

James said not only Forest City but the MTA should be invited to future meetings.

Another, broader study

James said, as a result of discussions with the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, her office has began talking with transportation consultants who will produce their own plan.

Veconi later told me that regards a comprehensive transportation plan for Central Brooklyn, involving “a whole range of issues that can't be addressed in a plan whose scope is controlled by the developer.”

The study, provoked by groups involved in BrooklynSpeaks, is still in the discussion stage, he said.


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