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Resident says sexual harassment continues, criticizes slow response; developer says worker ID system coming; other solutions needed (I think)

From the Daily News
Last night's bi-monthly Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Community Update meeting, held at 55 Hanson Place, was supposed to focus on updates on building sites and plans to block, reorder, and restore vehicular and pedestrian traffic as construction moves ahead.

Instead, the meeting focused on the developer's perceived inadequate response to some serious sexual harassment issues.

As the meeting began, just as host Nicole Jordan, Community Relations Manager for Empire State Development (ESD), the state authority overseeing/shepherding the project, tried to turn over the program to a colleague, Elicia Howard, the 23-year-old Prospect Heights resident who this week went public in the Daily News regarding sexual harassment incidents, spoke up.

And through methodical questions, Howard expressed frustration at the slow pace of response, given that she's still facing harassment.

Officials from ESD and developer Greenland Forest City Partners were apologetic and solicitous toward a woman who'd previously not been active in Atlantic Yards issues.

Indeed, they have begun to take some constructive action, with more in process, and the developer's front person Ashley Cotton--who said she herself has faced harassment in her life--sounded sympathetic and concerned.

But the problem, as I see it, is this: the site and project is an exceptionally tight fit, backing into the residential neighborhood of Prospect Heights.

The developers and their allies may have to spend more money and effort than they've done so far--even if it's more than on other projects--if they want to make sure construction and operations don't make neighbors' lives miserable.

State minimizing the issue?

Howard in December reported that it was "like being in a shark tank just to walk down your own street," given the daily gauntlet she runs regarding construction workers. She also was victimized by sexual misconduct, if not sexual assault, when three drunk men leaving a Barclays Center boxing match accosted her, hugging her and proceeding "to dry hump" her.

Last night, she said said she'd seen a video (below) of last month's Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) meeting, and she didn't like how Jordan summarized the problem as one incident regarding a single construction worker (as I wrote).

Jordan sounded rather bureaucratic. "In December 2015, Forest City and NYPD were notified of a resident that was sexually harassed by a construction worker," she said. "Greenland Forest City and ESD took immediate action by meeting with the resident. Greenland Forest City worked with NYPD as well to address the incident."

She said Greenland Forest City presented a plan, still in the works and now due by the end of this month, to readily identify project related construction workers with color-coded ID badges.

But it sounded like all was being resolved, and Howard emphatically said it wasn't.

Jordan apologetically said that was not their intention, and that the incident was handled by the New York Police Department. The state, she added, is not privy to that.

But Howard said NYPD had told her there was nothing further they can do. Soon Jordan's boss, Senior VP Marion Phillips III, got up to apologize. He said it "was never our intention to gloss it over" and that ESD was still following up with the developer.

The developer's response

Forest City Ratner's Cotton--the front person for Shanghai-based Greenland Holdings (which owns 70% of the project, to Forest City's 30%, minus the arena and B2 modular tower) and Moscow-based Onexim (which owns the arena)--said they had tried to respond.

The arena, she said, got a "missing code of conduct" introduced for fans of the New York Islanders. (As I've reported, they're generally louder and rowdier than basketball fans.)

Also, she said, the developers came up with ID system and had the managers of every development site have "a very serious conversation" at the local precinct "about how important these issues are and how we can’t see activity like this in the neighborhood."

"I think I committed to having this out in the spring, that is still my commitment," Cotton said. When pressed, she said they were aiming for this month.

Howard, however, had had more extensive discussions with the developer. What happened, she asked, for plans for a new head of security for the developer's mall, the Barclays Center, and construction sites?

"We did not make that hire after all," Cotton said, later explaining that they "decided that it wouldn't be as effective as we hoped."

Perhaps, but it would mean a point person for security issues, rather than Cotton, whose job involves government and public relations and cannot effectively wear a security hat along with that.

What happens next?

"So if I were to be harassed again," Howard asked, "there wouldn't be a security system in place?"

"If you get harassed again, call the police," said Cotton emphatically, warning that "some people think firing workers is more powerful than arresting them."

"So there's no way at this point in preventing this ongoing situation," Howard continued, "because I still get harassed by whoever." She described how, as she took a run recently, a group of construction workers started yelling so aggressively she thought--wrongly, it turned out--that they were alerting her of some kind of hazard.

"Who do you speak to, what is going to change moving forward?" Howard said, noting that such incidents are "is not something you go to police for. What is the solution to prevent because it's not a healthy living environment at all?"

"My solutions are the ones I just detailed," Cotton said. "We had a very long private conversation with you about a million ideas.. I think we took on the ones that would make the biggest difference...
I am open to every other new idea."

"In some way, I'm not sure how to answer the question, this happens to me too," Cotton continued. "Human behavior is a hard thing to change. I’m trying to figure out what I can do. I can't talk to these men and women individually. I can make them identifiable."

Other avenues?

Howard said she thought some of the ideas she and friends had discussed with Cotton were "amazing ideas."

Cotton said that, at that meeting, they discussed a publicity campaign to alert workers about sexual harassment. But she said that even one of Howard's friends agreed it wouldn't work if Forest City was behind it but rather would better come from a community initiative.

"I can't give sexual harassment training to union construction workers," Cotton added. "They're training comes from their unions and their employers."

And therein, perhaps, lies the rub. Greenland Forest City and industry allies I suspect have enough clout and money to make progress, working with the unions on a new program or helping community groups do so. They just haven't pushed it.

Howard said she felt "there's no fire to do these's more than enough time to get IDs on the construction workers. It's one thing to have one construction site, and deal with harassment from construction workers. But to have multiple sites, it's ten times worse... It's something you have to live with, day in and day out, and it hasn't changed.... It’s a huge problem; it doesn't seem to be a huge problem to you all."

Cotton said it was a top priority, noting that she works with CEO MaryAnne Gilmartin and Chairman Bruce Ratner. "I apologize for how slow it is."

Howard later said that, after her initial report of the incident with the boxing fans, the NYPD's Special Victims Unit were initially "very attentive." However, "as soon as they met with the developers, I couldn't get into contact with them at all."

A 78th Precinct representative, Lt. Acu Rhodes, said that was "totally unacceptable and it shouldn't happen."

Cotton said she had no involvement in that nor would have meddled with it. "The only police officers I know are here," from the 78th.

"I just felt I was left high and dry," Howard said.

Beyond the Islanders

I pointed out to Cotton that the most egregious incident Howard faced involved not the Islanders but a boxing match. I asked if they had plans regarding other potentially rowdy crowds, such as at boxing or the coming mixed martial arts.

"There’s a code of conduct for people to attend our building," Cotton said, adding that they were open to suggestions.

I'd say the arena should take special steps to alert boxing and MMA fans regarding a code of conduct, especially if such events (especially boxing) have a long undercard and thus allow longer opportunities to drink.

Logging the incidents

Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association contended that Empire State Development was inconsistent in logging NYPD-related incidents.

"Someone comes to this [periodic] meeting and reads a statement about multiple incidents," he said, "and they're not on this log... If Ashley is going to be going to the [AY CDC] board and giving the impression that Elicia's concerns have been met, but the board is only being told about a part of the concerns, then you guys have dropped the ball."

He added that ESD did not seem to be logging complaints filed via 311 or the 100-plus Instagram posts chronicling neighborhood impacts.

Phillips said "you make some very good points" and pledged to look at all complaints, including an effort--apparently made difficult by the city--to collect all 311 complaints.

Another harassment incident

"Are you guys aware that that there are other security complaints, including ones relating to harassment?" Krashes asked.

Added resident Wayne Bailey, who's also president of the 78th Precinct Community Council, "We have one resident that the police almost have to escort them out of their house every day... how can anybody not know about that?"

Updated and clarified below, based on audiotape and my notes (video is not permitted at these meetings):
[Neither Cotton, the developer's representative, nor Jordan, the state's representative, said they'd heard of it. Now they do.

Jordan, the state's representative, said she didn't know.

Earlier in the meeting, when Krashes said "there was an additional harassment complaint, are you familiar with that?" Cotton shook her head no. 

Since then, Forest City Ratner has reached out and told me the developer did in fact know of the complaint.