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At ESD Board meeting, routine approval of Draft Supplemental EIS marred by neighbors’ criticisms, director’s reservations

By the standards of Empire State Development, the gubernatorial-directed, not-so-accountable authority that oversees and shepherds Atlantic Yards, it counted as a moment of glasnost.

The ESD’s board yesterday had sat through some 20 minutes of public comment from Atlantic Yards neighbors who managed, with short notice, to attend a board meeting during business hours, regarding the ESD’s inevitable acceptance of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS).

While four commenters offered sober, if pointed criticisms of the ESD’s performance in monitoring Atlantic Yards developer Forest City Ratner, the lack of accountability in the project, the impacts of delays in affordable housing, and the flaws in the just-released DSEIS, the final commenter got emotional.

Taniya Gunasekara broke down in tears, lamenting the project’s impact on her two-year-old child, and stated, “I’ve lived in New York for ten years, I’m no stranger to noise and pollution. But what is going on in our neighborhood now is despicable.”

That left Ken Adams, the ESD’s affable CEO, always welcoming but essentially unbending, to put on his best funeral director voice and thank everyone for commenting and allow attendees one more chance to comment.

His staffers and board members sat somberly and stonefaced around the boardroom table at ESD’s headquarters at 633 Third Avenue in Manhattan.

No one sought to comment, so Adams entertained a motion to accept the DSEIS. He got one.

He asked for a vote. He got a few muttered versions of “aye.” (There were only three directors there with him, including Paul Ciminelli, Anthony Albanese, and Joyce Miller.)

Miller spoke up. “Aye, with reservations,” she said, the first instance in the history of Atlantic Yards that an ESD director had expressed a smidgen of official doubt.

(Miller, who joined the board in 2010, after a vote that year expressed sympathy to those complaining about construction, and said she wanted to be reassured that regulations were followed. That didn’t really happen.)

“I would like to suggested periodically the directors be given updates” on the project, said Miller. Adams quickly agreed that more frequent updates would be provided.

“Hearing no opposition,” he continued, “the motion carries, and we’ll move on.”

The process

There will be a public hearing on April 30. The Executive Summary of the Draft SEIS has been issued, but the entire document is not yet posted on the ESD web site.

To a certain degree, the comments and criticisms issued yesterday likely will be waved off by ESD. After all, the DSEIS is a disclosure document, and it’s already disclosed what people knew in the first round of environmental review: construction of the project would disturb the project’s neighbors on adjacent streets, but not have a larger neighborhood impact. Ergo: not a big deal.

However, even with that recognition, there’s ample evidence that construction has not followed protocols, as in a 2012 report from the consultant Sandstone, at the behest of Atlantic Yards Watch, the community initiative.

And the Executive Summary of the DSEIS fudges some of the issues, claiming, for example, that noise from overnight deliveries of modules “would not constitute a significant adverse noise impact” because they’d “be comparable in magnitude and duration to that which would result from operation of any heavy truck on the roadway adjacent to the receptor”—as if people typically move into residential neighborhoods expecting heavy trucks at night.

But Atlantic Yards is a big, big project, involving global capital from Russia and China, and an arena that’s known around the world. The Barclays Center has just signed the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament.

It hosted a Game of Thrones event. The Islanders are coming. None of the parties involved--the performers, the fans, the sponsors—have a reason to care about the neighborhood. That’s the state’s job.

Leading off

Adams rejiggered the meeting schedule so Atlantic Yards was first on the agenda. (I came in late and missed most of the session, but listened to a recording and then watched the video.)

ESD project director Paula Roy began with a five-minute summary of the project, including proposed changes to shift some bulk from Phase 1 to Phase 2 and to reduce the amount of parking.

Adams noted that the proposed but not yet consummated transaction with the Chinese government-owned Greenland Group, to buy 70% of the remaining project, might mean Atlantic Yards gets built out in ten years as originally planned, as opposed to the potential 25 years examined as a worst-case scenario in the environmental review.

Veconi on process: what about other developers?

Gib Veconi, Treasurer of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council, focused on the state’s failure to consider the option of bringing in other developers. (PHNDC was one of the petitioners in the litigation that led to the court-ordered DSEIS.)

“PHNDC believes that had ESDC [ESD is also known as Empire State Development Corporation, or ESDC] and the project sponsors been candid about the 2009 change from a 10-year to a 25-year build out”—a change revealed only after the project was re-approved—“public pressure would have required the agency not only to conduct an SEIS, but also to explore a strategy of including other development partners to preserve the schedule under which the project was originally approved,” he said. 

That means the jobs, housing and other promised benefits might have been provided, and there wouldn’t be a discussion about additional adverse environmental impacts to assess.

“Yet the following description of a multiple-developer alternative is all that appears in the DSEIS’ executive summary,” Veconi stated a bit archly. “The analysis of the multi-developer alternative concludes that the alternative would not be practicable, and would not be effective in accelerating construction of Phase II of the Project.”

He pointed out that other ESD projects, like Queens West, involved multiple developers, and the pattern in Downtown Brooklyn shows there’s demand.

“It’s quite clear a multi-source approach is more resilient and efficient than the single-source model,” he said, suggesting that ESD’s agreement in 2009 "makes it impossible to consider an alternative with other developers than Forest City Ratner.”

However, he noted, “that agreement was the product of a modified plan which courts have ruled ESDC approved illegally in the absence of an SEIS—this SEIS. That would be to say that ESDC’s past failure to produce an SEIS now justifies an incomplete analysis in response to the court order.”

He also noted that the pending Greenland transaction would not represent a multiple-developer strategy but rather a single-source development project, “but under the control of a partner exposed to one of the world’s most volatile economies.”

And while DSEIS states that Greenland has stated its aim to build the project in ten years, “no details have been provided in your board book. Why doesn’t the proposed amendment to the MGPP include this new revised project schedule?”

“Your acceptance now of the DSEIS will further enshrine the unprecedented, failed franchise that ESDC has provided to a single source developer,” he said, calling for the board to reject the DSEIS.

Warnings about housing

Michelle de La Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee, part of BrooklynSpeaks and another petitioner in the suit, noted that FAC “has been concerned about the lack of public accountability about Atlantic Yards since its inception.” (Full testimony here.)

She noted that the delay in delivering the affordable housing—most of the planned 2250 subsidized units would come years after originally promised would have “dramatic” local impacts.

“Gentrification and displacement pressures have increased to alarming levels,” especially on African-American residents of Community Districts 2, 3, 6, and 8, said de la Uz, who is also the appointee of then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to the City Planning Commission.

While residents of those districts would get a preference in the housing lottery—50% of the units would be reserved for them—the current displacement trends mean that black residents would be less and less likely to be able to take advantage of that preference. (She didn’t mention that a good fraction of the subsidized housing would be aimed to moderate- and middle-income households.)

Adams, after hearing de la Uz’s testimony, in a friendly voice recalled how residents Peter Krashes and Wayne Bailey led ESD directors on a tour of the neighborhood, and they also saw FAC’s “great work” in building Atlantic Terrace, which was 75% subsidized for-sale units, catercorner to the arena block at Atlantic Avenue.

Construction oversight

Bailey, a member of the board of the Newswalk condo building, essentially reprised the Sandstone report, pointed failures in oversight of construction, including:
  • failing to train construction workers in mitigation measures
  • a required On-Site Environmental Monitor (OEM), who seemingly has not done the job
  • ESD’s inadequate monitoring of construction activities
  • lack of oversight of work on MTA property, since the city doesn’t oversee it and calls to 311 are ineffective
  • the limited role of the staffer that ESD initially called ombudsman, but who was relegated to the function of conduit or community liaison
  • Forest City’s on-site construction coordinator has been provided intermittently
Bailey expressed exasperation. “In October 2009,” Bailey noted, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries stated ‘the ombudsman system ... is nonfunctional because the higher-ups at ESDC aren't interested in empowering the ombudsman in a manner that would benefit the community.’”

“I believe the State has lost the confidence of the community in relation to the way it oversees construction impacts,” Bailey concluded. “We hope you will work with us to revise the oversight so that the environmental impacts of construction are correctly understood and minimized.”

Kowtowing to Forest City

Krashes, a member of the Dean Street Block Association, spoke as an individual.

“We are here today because, in 2009, as at each juncture in this project’s planning and approval stages, the State does not have the level of knowledge necessary, or the curiosity, to assess the range of choices available to the public,” he said. “As a result, the State only finds the route that benefits Forest City Ratner the most."

“At the time of the original project approval in 2006, the State and City both provided subsidies and a large 22-acre project site to Forest City Ratner based on a value for the project assuming a ten-year build out time frame,” he said. “At the time, Forest City Ratner was misleading the public about their ability to develop the project in 10 years.” For example, there was no proof the subsidies for the housing were available, and the platform over the rail yard was not included in the project’s financial estimates. There was no enforceable timetable.

“I’ve detailed to the board before, how in 2008 the block association I am part of sat at this table with Community Board 8 and another block association when MaryAnne Gilmartin and Jane Marshall from Forest City Ratner told us with the support of [ESD's] Avi Shick and his staff that the project was going to be built in 10 years, so no further mitigations were necessary,” Krashes said. “Only the community in the room seemed aware the principal benefit, purpose, and use of the project is to eliminate designated blight. A year later Bruce Ratner told the public, ‘It was never supposed to be the time we were supposed to build them in.’ If so, how come the value of the project was assessed as it was in 2006?"

In 2009, Forest City reopened the deal. “At the instigation of the developer, the State simply changed the project agreements to enable building the most profitable portions first, and slowed down property control of the rail yard in order to improve their flexibility,” Krashes noted. “In the meantime they – and you -- claimed in court the anticipated time frame is essentially still ten years, and the project agreements maintained FCRC’s lock on the entire project site.”

“Who has been surprised to see the value of the project steadily eroded, not only because of the project delays, but because of the switch to modular construction to lower construction costs, lower quality affordable housing than promised, lessened opportunities for other projects to receive low interest loans from EB5 financing, and Building 1 being put in limbo,” he said.

So, nine years after demolition began on his block, Krashes said, “you are releasing an SEIS that it took four-and-a-half-years to write. Was the delay because it takes four-and-a-half-years to write a document like this, or because FCRC wanted to get its ducks in a row first?”

“What is clear to us,” he said in closing, “is that the State is prepared to place the risk for this project on the community and public – both in terms of project benefits and the project’s environmental impacts -- while putting the priority on the current developer’s interests.”

Cutting to the heart

The final speaker was Gunasekara, who lives on Sixth Avenue between Dean and Bergen Streets and previously called the MTV Video Music Awards “a huge interruption to the community.” She has cited parking, garbage, and noise as intrusions.

“Everyone in this room, sitting around his table, has failed the neighborhood,” she said, wracked by emotion.“Atlantic Yards, Ratner, has bought you guys off. It’s very disappointing.”

She concluded by stating, as noted,  “I’ve lived in New York for ten years, I’m no stranger to noise and pollution. But what is going on in our neighborhood now is despicable.”

Then came the vote, and ESD could return to its scheduled pattern of general consent.