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BrooklynSpeaks, DDDB comment on Draft Scope for SEIS: consider other developers, assess impacts of delay on open space, affordable housing, tax benefits; Newswalk points to construction impacts

Following up on comments delivered orally at the 2/27/13 public meeting on the contents of the Draft Scope for an Atlantic Yards Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), BrooklynSpeaks has issued a lengthy set of comments advocating, among other things, that the Phase 2 properties be divided and bid out to multiple developers in order to achieve the project goals--especially the removal of blight--closer to ten rather than 25 years.

BrooklynSpeaks, which was formed to modify rather than stop the project, has remained far more active than Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which aimed to block the project.

The two organizations filed separate lawsuits that were combined and resulted in the court order for the SEIS, as a judge ruled--despite a legal playing field tilted toward government agencies--that the state had not studied the impact of a potential 25 year buildout, which was allowed by contract documents signed after the project was reapproved in 2009.

DDDB did not testify formally at the meeting (though some people active in DDDB testified), issued a shorter statement with some similar requests, though with a more pointed critique of the Draft Scope.

Unlike the BrooklynSpeaks statement and most of the testimony at the public meeting, DDDB also suggested that "alternate densities"--i.e., a smaller project be considered.

Both comments called for an updated and more comprehensive assessment of the socioeconomic impacts of the project, given delays in construction and use of lower-cost modular construction techniques. I too filed comments requesting a cost-benefit analysis that incorporated different scenarios, including a partial/delayed buildout of housing, as well as a delay in the construction of the promised office tower.

One key issue is the 15-year deadline to start the platform over the Vanderbilt Yard, which is the below-grade piece of the project site that the city long considered blighted. Meanwhile, as BrooklynSpeaks states, residential construction in nearby Downtown Brooklyn is going gangbusters, as noted in coverage yesterday in Crain's NY Business.

Construction impacts

Also, Wayne Bailey of the neighboring Newswalk condominums filed a lengthy comment regarding the impacts of construction, pointing to numerous violations--trucks not using truck routes; idling limo; bright lights; noise; vibrations; garbage; tree removal--documented on the Atlantic Yards Watch website.

Another neighbor's comments

Also, Steve Ettlinger of Park Slope posted comments (embedded below) that requested analysis of the impacts on pedestrian safety and local drivers from illegal idling and parking, and the impacts of  delays on local retail and public health.

What next

The comments will be considered in the preparation of a Final Scope, which will lead to a Draft SEIS and another opportunity for comments.

Supporters of the project want the environmental review to proceed quickly without impediment to Forest City, suggesting the process portends delay for Phase 2, though Phase 1 is still in process. They have not said they want to change the contract deadlines.

BrooklynSpeaks summary

The full BrooklynSpeaks statement is embedded at bottom. Below are paragraphs from the statement distributed for the press.

The need to eliminate blight:
We note that the need for a SEIS was cited prior to the approval of the 2009 MGPP [Modified General Project Plan], not only by our organizations but by nearly every local elected official representing the neighborhoods surrounding the Atlantic Yards project. We sincerely regret that litigation was required to compel the study anticipated by the draft scope, but look forward to working constructively with the ESDC to ensure that the SEIS it prepares will be a new starting point from which the stated objectives of the Atlantic Yards project can be achieved on a timely basis, through a transparent process with public accountability.
As its core deliverable, the SEIS must reconcile the stated purpose of the Atlantic Yards project to eliminate purported blight, with the 2009 MGPP’s potential of extending the exact same blight some 15 years past the timeframe given for completion of the Atlantic Yards project at the time of its approval in 2006. In the absence of such reconciliation, we find these two positions antithetical, particularly given that a pattern of investment and organic development had already been established in the area within the project footprint prior to Atlantic Yards’ 2006 approval. It will not be enough for the SEIS to conclude that construction impacts are not greater over 25 years than they otherwise would be over 10 years. The Atlantic Yards project itself was approved to address a blight condition so onerous that hundreds of millions of dollars of direct and indirect government aid, zoning overrides and the use of eminent domain all were apparently justified. There would appear to be some public interest in such blighted conditions being remediated in a timely fashion, and the SEIS should determine whether delaying the completion of the project supports that interest.
The need to protect the public during construction:
But to the extent the SEIS nevertheless should conclude that extending project construction by nearly a generation would not create additional adverse impact to local communities, it must be prepared to explain how commitments to protect air quality, limit construction noise, manage contention for on-street parking between construction workers and residents, and control the use of residential streets by construction vehicles will be enforced. Violations of these commitments during the construction of the Barclays Center arena were well documented not only by residents but also by the ESDC’s own environmental monitor, leading an independent environmental engineer to conclude that ESDC and the City of New York in effect allowed Forest City Ratner to break project commitments and City law with impunity. Why should the public believe later phases of the Atlantic Yards project will be different? This question must be answered thoroughly and with candor.
The lingering impacts of Phase 1:
Nor is it sufficient for the SEIS to limit its scope of analysis to Atlantic Yards’ second phase footprint. Current project agreements allow the development of features of Phase I, including building B1 and the entire Site 5, to extend beyond the originally-approved 10-year time frame. Analyses involving the impacts of construction on transportation and pedestrian circulation must be revisited for the entire project site based upon current conditions and existing plans.
The delay in affordable housing:
The SEIS must also assess the time value of economic development and affordable housing benefits ascribed to the Atlantic Yards project. Would thousands of affordable apartments delivered fifteen years late really be as effective in terms of preserving socioeconomic diversity in the study area as if they were delivered on the originally approved schedule? And what would the delay in adding tens of thousands of residents mean to the development of businesses in Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, Park Slope and Boerum Hill?
The delay in open space:
What about the “temporary” open space impact cited in the draft scope of work? The build year guidelines in the CEQR Technical Manual would suggest that an interim build year based on the contractual obligation to complete Phase I in 12 years be considered as a point at which the open space impact must be mitigated—with or without the Phase II buildings.
The need to consider other developers

The press statement says:
The BrooklynSpeaks sponsors believe that when all of the above impacts are considered together, they indicate that an alternative plan for the development of Phase II of the Atlantic Yards project must be evaluated. This alternative plan should focus on the opportunity to restore the original 10-year construction plan by dividing the Phase II site among multiple development teams through a competitive bidding process. Had ESDC not withheld disclosure of the change in project schedule in 2009 in order to avoid a SEIS, exploring this alternative would have made good sense at the time. With intense development activity in downtown Brooklyn today, it is no longer a matter of simple good sense, it is imperative that it be explored in order to realize the stated goals of the Atlantic Yards project.
The longer  BrooklynSpeaks document points to evidence from development conditions nearby:
FCRC has asserted that historically poor, and unanticipated, market conditions gave rise to the lengthy delay agreed to in the 2009 MGPP. To the extent that this rationale had even a theoretical foundation at the time, it is demonstrably not the case today: Brooklyn, particularly the downtown area, is the hottest real estate market in New York City. With new development projects moving up Flatbush Avenue and into the BAM cultural district slated to break ground over the next two years, there is yet more to come. These projects include the Gotham with 600 units of which 300 are affordable, Two Trees’ BAM triangle with 300 units of which 60 are deeply affordable, The HUB by Steiner, 770 units of which 149 are deeply affordable and permanent. Clearly, the Brooklyn real estate market is not in a recession and the area in question likely never was. One must ask, was the delay embodied in the MGPP instead caused by the financial condition of the sole source developer and not the market? The SEIS must thoroughly study and analyze this question with hard data and candor.
All of the projects about to break ground also provide thousands of square feet of cultural facilities, public plazas, public library and retail space. The land in the cultural district is controlled by the City of New York which has negotiated to bring major public benefits to these projects. For example, the Gotham has the same ratio of affordability in terms of unit count and distribution as B2 in the Atlantic Yards project – except in the latter, only 20% of affordable units would be two bedrooms, while in the Gotham, 40% are 2 bedroom units. The difference is striking: 36 vs. 120 two-bedroom units. The City’s model of multiple sites and a variety of developers is thus far yielding greater public benefit. It presents an alternative that begs for evaluation.
No Independent Compliance Monitor

The BrooklynSpeaks document (not the press statement) points to Forest City Ratner's failure to hire an  Independent Compliance Monitor (ICM) promised “as soon as reasonably practicable” following the signing of the agreement in 2005 but continually delayed, with no current plans to hire one:
The SEIS must assess the impact of failing to hire the ICM on the incidents of violations of the MEC [Memorandum of Environmental Commitments] during arena construction. The SEIS must also propose how an environmental compliance function accountable to the local community will be provided for future phases of construction that will not suffer the same fate as the ICM.

DDDB statement

The DDDB statement, via attorney Jeff Baker, is at bottom. Below are some excerpts.

The potted history:
The Introduction of the Draft Scope misstates the procedural posture of this project and the circumstances that gave rise to this SEIS. Unmentioned in the Draft Scope is that in 2009, faced with major changes in the project, namely the phased acquisition of the Vanderbilt Yards by FCRC from the MTA, ESDC continued to assume a 10-year buildout for the project as the basis for its SEQRA determination.... The SEIS must properly recount the history of the litigation and subsequent reviews.
Helping the developer:
It must also be pointed out that Justice Friedman did not simply order the preparation of an SEIS, she also ordered ESDC to use the SEIS to issue "further findings on whether to approve the MGPP for Phase II of the Project.
To properly comply with the law and the court's order ESDC must undertake this review without blinders designed to protect FCRC...
Bidding out the site to alleviate blight:
As part of the SEIS, ESDC must consider the impacts of the delayed construction on such issues as community character, traffic, noise and socioeconomic impacts, to name a few. It also must consider the question of what project and/or combination of development partners is best positioned to actually build the project in the shortest reasonable time. If the purpose of the project is to alleviate blight and to provide housing, affordable and market as well as construction and permanent jobs, then ESDC must consider if this can be accomplished in less than 25 years... The SEIS should include that [financial] information and consider an alternative that divides the project into discrete components that can be developed by different firms.
Alternate plans:
ESDC should consider alternate designs and densities and evaluate the benefits of working with other developers to complete a feasible project in a reasonable period of time... If blight was a problem in 2006, the intervening actions by FCRC have not alleviated that problem...
Open space needs:
If allowed to proceed as previously approved, the project will exacerbate the lack of open space in the area... The SEIS should consider if a redesign and division of the project will allow quicker construction that will bring the touted open space benefits to reality in a quicker manner.
Construction impacts:
Furthermore, as part of the approvals for the project there were representations and warranties regarding FCRC's and ESDC's compliance with the conditions and monitoring of FCRC's compliance. The SEIS should include an assessment of that compliance and determine if additional measures should be incorporated for Phase II.
As BrooklynSpeaks points out in its full comments, a study by a prepared for Atlantic Yards Watch by a veteran environmental consulting firm, concludes that the Forest City Ratner and its contractors, bent on getting the arena finished by a tight deadline, regularly failed to comply with mitigation protocols officially agreed to, and that other mitigations were implemented late, poorly, or unevenly.