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Despite self-praise from AY CDC exec, residents slam lack of transparency, oversight; developer says no "poor-er floor"; fence might come down?

Beyond the developers' opaque forecast on project delays, a lot was disclosed during yesterday's meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC).

Despite a self-congratulatory statement about the work done by the AY CDC from the group's president--who just happens to be an executive of the state authority the new body is supposed to advise--it was a decidedly frustrating meeting for the public.

Notably, at the end of the meeting, four public commenters spoke with frustration and anger about the lack of transparency regarding the project and the impacts on their lives. Those statement were heard but did not engender response. And then everyone went home.

Developer denies "poor-er floor"

Sublease re 535 Carlton
During the meeting, Board Member Barika Williams, an affordable housing advocate, asked the developer about media reports--in this blog--about collecting the lowest-income households "on particular floors" in 100% affordable buildings with mostly middle-income units.

“The distribution that was publicized," stated Forest City Ratner executive Ashley Cotton, "is not the final distribution. And we're working with HDC [New York City Housing Development Corporation], and it will be much more spread all around. The final determination will be done by HDC, and it’s not done yet. It will absolutely not be what you read."

Then again, the developers, Greenland Forest City Partners, neither filed nor sent me any updated sublease indicating the new configuration. Nor did they explain why, for nearly two years (the sublease was dated 12/15/14), they seemingly intended that the 15 poorest households be on the lowest three floors.

Jump-starting the project

Regarding project delays, Cotton admitted the obviously, saying that "two [market-rate project] buildings today are not on the timeline initially thought," citing B12 (615 Dean) and B15 (664 Pacific). Actually, as indicated in the annotated map below, B13 is also well behind the previous temporary timetable.

Williams noted that Forest City had acknowledged that the market had changed regarding a glut of luxury buildings. "I don’t think that’s the same thing as saying the buildings are delayed."

She asked Cotton if the developers had approached the city or state regarding other tax abatement alternatives beyond 421-a, which parent Forest City Realty Trust had cited--along with increasing construction costs and a market flush with luxury units--as delaying the project.
My October 2016 annotation of August 2014 tentative timetable
Cotton said 421-a was the top priority for all in the real estate industry.

Chairman Howard Zemsky, who also heads Empire State Development--the state authority that oversees/shepherds Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, and which the AY CDC is set up to advise--said, "I think the point is, they're writing off $300 million, so it’s been a lot of circumstances combining to make an unfavorable investment for them, so consequently there is some delay... So I'm sure your suggestion as to how they might not have to write off $300 million is welcome on their end."

"There is no replacement for 421-a that we're aware of," Cotton said.

Williams suggested that, given the significant amount of affordable housing in this project--she didn't cite the actual affordability--this project was not on equal footing with exclusively market-rate developments. "So that kind of conversation between you all and government is not the same."

"So you’re saying we're more sympathetic," Cotton said. "Got it. I love that idea."

Overall praise

After describing the progress in the project since the AY CDC first met at the beginning of 2015, including four buildings nearing completion, and the state's oversight measures,  Marion Phillips III, the ESD executive who is president of the AY CDC, said, "When we look at where we have been, where you have been. I think we need to accept some things that have gone very well." The board, which is dominated by gubernatorial appointees and has only a few members who ask tough questions, was set up as part of a 2014 compromise to ensure the affordable housing is built by 2025.

"Of course there are always concerns from the community because they are living in an area with four buildings under construction, an active arena, a very active arena, and it’s in a very busy thoroughfare." Phillips said, "but ESD has been very committed to, along with the developer, to making sure many of the concerns of the community that are raised are addressed."

Sure, but the project's a very tight fit, backing into a residential neighborhood, so even relatively few incidents can be extremely disruptive.

Phillips described the oversight measures, including ESD field staff on site five days a week, and multiple consultants on site. "When you look at the amount of commitment that ESD and the developer has, to addressing the concerns and monitoring the site, and being as aggressive as we can to make sure that the area is very livable to the best of its ability, when you consider how much construction is going on," he said, "a total of between eight and then people, when [headquarters staffers] Nicole [Jordan] and Tobi [Jaiyesimi] are out there part-time."

Falling short in assessing project impacts

"I guess the sword I will fall on is we have yet to be able to come up with a community relations app, a digital solution," Phillips said, regarding the long-promised plan for a way to centralize all complaints and concerns around project impacts. "We're working on that [solution] internally, and we hope to get this resolved quickly."

"We will just have to accept that the communication and effort by staff and the entire time is very good, and we are able to address many needs," he said, in a statement that likely members of the public in attendance would question. "Had we done all our due diligence, what we’d have discovered it's very difficult to get city and state agencies to communicate in that matter."

Board member Shawn Austin asked, "Given the struggles with the app, how important is it?"

"I think the fact that everybody knows how to reach Nicole, reach Tobi," Phillips responded, "if I have to give it a one to ten, probably a four or five."

That wasn't convincing to all. During the public comment period at the end of the meeting, Gib Veconi of the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council said "With all due respect, I think the reason we don't have a system to consolidate is not satisfactory. You either have a set of requirements that the board has approved and reviewed, or you do not. And it sounds like you do not."

Veconi, who said he'd "spent a career in enterprise software," volunteered to serve without charge to help craft those requirements. "Until we have a centralized portal," he said, "we're not going to have a basis in data to figure out whether you’re doing a good job or not."

Earlier, in response to Phillips, board member Barika Williams noted that "we heard last time that people are using Instagram and Twitter... those aren't being pulled into the reports."

Phillips ignored that issue and addressed another of her concerns, on how to reach the many new residents moving in. He said the state would work with the project developers to reach the owners and tenants.

Board member Jaime Stein, a mayoral appointee, said she'd spoken with a representative of the mayor's Community Assistance Unit, who detailed the difficulty in aggregating 311 data regarding the project.

"What is the metric to know that we're fulfilling the priorities of this board?" she asked, noting that even if Instagram and Twitter posts could be used to assess progress.

Phillips gave a nod to "looking at tools that exist," but Jaiyesimi said, "It's very hard to monitor Instagram and Twitter posts." (Hello: hashtag like #BCIZA.) Instead, she recommended a call or email to staff. Of course that means such concerns are not publicized.

How many incidents?

Jordan told the group that there had been six incidents on the staff log since September, and "all incidents are closed." One regarded dust/air quality, two concerned vibrations from project construction, and the other three included the moving of "no parking" signs, traffic, and the impact of the Carlton Avenue fence outside the southeast block of the project.

Her account skated over the frustrations expressed by residents at the last Quality of Life meeting, and ignored a report of harassment by construction workers.

Dust on Carlton
During the comment period, Carlton Avenue resident Elisabeth Martin handed out photos of dust that drifted over her block last Friday.

She said, according to her reading of the product data sheet, it was "highly dangerous" and "may cause eye irritation." There had been two previous incidents, she said. "How come, after it was brought to the attention of the developer [previously], on Veterans Dy, the truck showed up again, and covered not only my block but Dean Street as well."

Note that, despite the purported number of state staff/consultants on site, that work was shut down only after calls from community members to the developer.

Martin warned that health consequences could be some years away and suggested outreach to people to get examined.

ESD's Jordan cut Martin off after two minutes and said additional comments could be submitted in writing.

At the end of the meeting, Jordan said that the dust incident had been addressed by the Department of Environmental Protection, which "determined there were no contaminants."

That's unclear because the DEP surely had tested after a previous incident, which didn't necessarily address the issue on Nov. 11. (I asked for more details and will update when I know more.) She did said that DEP recommended that the contractor lower the height of the crane involved in the work.

Moving the giant fence?

The giant 16-foot fence on the southeast block of the project will be removed almost completely where it sits around the two buildings that are slated to open soon, 535 Carlton (B14) at the west end and 550 Vanderbilt (B11) at the east end.
My October 2016 annotation of August 2014 tentative timetable
At about 47:44 of the video, board member Linda Reardon asked if the fence might be lowered and moved in around the stalled 615 Dean construction site (B12) just west of 550 Vanderbilt.

"Those fences are state requirements, so you'd have to ask the state," responded Cotton.

The fences, said ESD planner Rachel Shatz, were "an MEC [Memorandum of Environmental Commitments] requirement to address the noise impacts that were identified as a result of the construction, and they have proven to be very effective in that regard."

"If the fences are to be considered to be removed or replaced by shorter fences, it would be because there is some reason, either logistically, or some pragmatic reason," she said. "We'd review it and we would make a decision as to whether the request warranted reconsideration."

"Presumably, if the construction slows down, there's not a need," observed Reardon, a Prospect Heights resident.

"It's a very lengthy and expensive endeavor to take it down and put it up," Shatz said.

Reardon noted that the fence aims to protect against ongoing construction, so,"if the duration goes on longer,… the community shouldn't be burdened."

Cotton noted that there's a fence at the fourth site on that southeast block, just east of 535 Carlton (B14). "At the other site, nothing's commenced at all," she said, "because there’s no requirement for us to move forward."

"These are required of us," Cotton continued, "and we convinced the state not to require them going forward, after we saw what they were like, and that’s why we don’t have them in other places."

"I’m sorry, I don't agree with that statement," Shatz countered, beginning a mini-episode in which the state and the developer, unusually in public, clashed a bit. "We did not require the installation of 16-foot fences for reasons I was describing before," she said, given that such a large fence at the B3 site, on the arena's southeast flank, would have hampered the turning radius for trucks. "It's impossible to have both, it wasn't because you guys didn’t want them there."

"I’m saying we actively worked to try to eliminate this requirement," Cotton said. "And we’re very pleased that we did." She noted that one of the two sites with the fence "doesn’t have a start date." [Actually, the tentative B13 start date, according to the above map, was July 2016.] "It's sort of irrelevant to the market conditions."

"It''s not irrelevant to the community, though, a fence on their block for ten years rather than two years," said Reardon, suggesting--though there's no specific timetable--that the fence might last far longer than assumed.

"I think it's a very reasonable request and we can look at it," Shatz said.

Neighbors' concerns

Anu Heda, president of the Dean Street Block Association, reflected that his group's members had sat "around a table similar to this one, in 2008," when representatives of Forest City Ratner and the state said "there was no reason to discuss improving the project by addressing potential delays because the project would not be delayed. That conversation was eight years ago. The only real surprise in Forest City Realty Trust's recent disclosure that this news has been made public."

“The community most adversely impacted by the project is hard-pressed to compete with any reasonable consideration," he said, with little ability to gain "responsiveness, accountability, and transparency.” He said "it is totally unacceptable how poorly our well-being is overseen by the state."

Public safety

Early in the meeting, Stein said the issue of New York Police Department not being present at the bi-monthly project Quality of Life meetings "has come up quite a bit."

Jordan noted that NYPD reps do attend--though I'd note they don't always speak. "Their concerns are that their precinct councils are the very best avenue and the best venue to get information about the work they do," she said.

Actually, the precinct council meetings do not provide an opportunity, as at the Quality of Life meetings, for there to be a real focus on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, or a sense that the various agencies are listening to each other.

Williams noted that, at a previous meeting, she'd brought up the notion of putting up emergency call boxes on the site to enhance public safety. She was told that usually works on closed systems, like college campuses or hospitals, that have their own security. Jaiyesimi said the state would work with school agencies when the public school is built.

Williams asked who was responsible for the site. Phillips said that public safety issues were the responsibility of the NYPD, while the developer was responsible inside the fence (and presumably, the state monitors keep track.)

"It's not my job"

That earlier dialogue seemed to influence Pacific Street resident Jim Vogel. "In all of these meetings, where the public has a chance to speak," he said scornfully during the comment period, referring to the frequent statement that a problem is the issue of another agency, "there's a wonderful game of 'It's not my job.'"

The official reason for the state Atlantic Yards project, he said, is to alleviate blight, he said. "The central factor in the blight for this area, which had never been considered to be a blight condition before this project, is an open railyard."

"We're all discussing delays in putting up luxury buildings," he said. "Well, boo hoo. I think the state has to really double down and make sure that the reason this project exists... that railyard had better get covered before we have any discussion about, 'Well, we have to have luxury housing.'"

Limiting public comment

Even the nuts and bolts of the meeting went awry. At the beginning of the meeting, as shown in the video, Zemsky said,  "After each item is presented, we will allow comments. The final item is titled Public Comment, to provide comments on non-agenda matters."

That's not what happened. During the meeting, at about 33:57 of the video, Veconi asked if there was opportunity to offer public comment on the president's report, which had described the recent history of the project.

"Public comment will all occur at the same time," responded Phillips.

With all comments limited to just two minutes, that meant a shorter overall amount of elapsed time for public comments. Later, when Veconi spoke during the final public comment period, he observed that "it’s been my experience that the public has an opportunity to comment on agenda items as they happen. In the past, it's been a helpful component."

A new board member, replacing Lewis

At the beginning of the meeting, it was announced that Cy Richardson is Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’s appointee. His biography was not disclosed, but Richardson is an urban planner who works Senior Vice President for Economics and Housing Programs at the National Urban League.

Unmentioned was that Richardson replaces Bertha Lewis, formerly head of New York ACORN and now head of The Black Institute, who signed the original affordable housing agreement with Forest City Ratner, which has since been diminished in several ways.

I had pointed out the conflict of interest in having both Lewis and Sharon Daughtry, both representatives of groups that signed the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement and which receive(d) support from the project developer, advising the state on the project.

Daughtry attended one meeting and left soon after. Lewis did ask some tough questions during her brief stint; it wasn't explained why she left, though presumably she has bigger fish to fry. But it would have been interesting to hear her drill down on some affordable housing issues.


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