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Before next meeting, AY CDC member suggests board has its limits (as does environmental review)

The next meeting of the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), an advisory body, is today at 3 pm. See previous coverage of footprint renters, West Portal/railyard timing, and project/building/green wall timing.

When I covered a 9/27/17 panel associated with artist/activist Peter Krashes' exhibition, Block Party, I wrote about the tensions expressed in Krashes's paintings, as well as the onerous contract pushed on--but not required of--a project neighbor who wanted back windows thick enough to deter project-related noise.

But another theme surfaced from Jaime Stein, Director of Pratt Institute's M.S. in Sustainable Environmental Systems, who serves on the state-created advisory board, the Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC), which first met in February 2015. The board was created as a compromise during a 2014 agreement to speed up the long-delayed affordable housing, but it does not have the policy-making powers once sought.

Pushed by the Dean Street Block Association (DSBA) as a mayoral appointee, Stein, as I've written, has been the board member most willing to pressure the parent agency, Empire State Development (ESD), the state economic development authority.

"I felt that board would be this public arena to allow public to air their concerns… to be a clearing house for information," Stein said at the panel, "where all the city agencies that were dealing with the day to day, and the public could have a conversation." That didn't quite happen, and Stein seems a bit frustrated by her three-year tenure, which is nearing the end of its term.

AY CDC responsibilities

She read the eight bullet points enumerating the potentially broad powers of the AY CDC board:
  • reviewing proposed changes to the project plan and advising the parent ESD board
  • monitoring developer compliance with all public commitments
  • monitoring, reporting on and responding to construction impacts
  • evaluating the quality and effectiveness of monitoring, support, and other services
  • making recommendations to ESD on how to improve and expedite developer responsiveness to public obligations and increase transparency of project development
  • assuring effective communication between the developer, government agencies and officials, elected officials and community and civic organizations
  • developing recommendations related to the project
  • complying, as appropriate, with the Public Officers Law
AY CDC performance

The reality has been different. Advising the ESD board in advance of votes, Stein said, was something "we’ve never really done." The few advisories were quite minor, such as a last-minute requirement to advise on the hiring of the ESD's environmental monitor or changes to the open space guidelines.

The board, she said, consists of "15 or so fairly well intentioned individuals serving on an incredibly long and complex project."

(I think that was a bit generous, since some members seem placed as rubber stamps for ESD or are ESD officials. Also, the AY CDC executive director is now ESD's project director for Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park, so she's essentially helping advise herself.)

Stein cited a few successes, requiring that ESD take notes at the bimonthly Atlantic Yards Quality of Life community meetings, and getting that meeting renamed from Community Update (which an ESD official called a "developer meeting"), which had been changed from Quality of Life.

However, the board faces a structural challenge. "We have absolutely no communication prior to sitting in the room," she said, indicating that board members come underprepared for discussions. Thus, she said, if she weren't in communication with DSBA, "I wouldn’t know what to say."

As to monitoring compliance with commitments, Stein suggested that a "generations long" project was inherently difficult to monitor.

"If you really look at this list, it’s a huge charge," she said. "After three years of service, we perhaps haven’t done many of these. I feel very acutely that, as mayoral appointee, all the impacts are at the city, but the accountability is at the state."

Sources of pressure?

Krashes said that neighborhood activists have appealed to Borough President Eric Adams to reconvene what was once called the District Service Cabinet, bringing city agencies together in one room, thus creating some transparency. Such agencies once came to the Quality of Life meetings, he noted.

Dwight Smith of Community Board 2, commenting from around the circle of attendees, called it "an organization authority problem" that diminishes the voice of citizens.

Stein noted that at a meeting for the Hudson Yards project all city agencies were present, and acknowledged her own mea culpa--as city rep--in not getting agencies to the table.

Krashes observed that "state agencies trump city agencies" and could "tell a city agency what to do." He noted the absence of state agencies as well. "The project is delivering a giant piece of infrastructure to MTA"--a new railyard, though the timetable is in question--"and I’ve not seen MTA at a meeting."

A lack of incentives

Krashes suggested there was a lack of incentives for oversight, that elected officials prefer to go to groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings rather then spend time monitoring, for example, the number of workers or the degree of affordability.

"There’s a disincentive to scrutinize," he said, which means that members of the public, especially those closest to the project, wind up doing that, at the cost of  "huge personal sacrifices."

The bigger picture: better planning

Stein observed that the city doesn't plan sufficiently--"we at Pratt have been beating that drum."

Most projects, she later elaborated, are driven by developers and the real estate industry, not by a community scale planning process, such as the 197-a plans encouraged by the city charter. (Indeed, I'd add, they've often been ignored, such as the one developed in Greenpoint-Williamsburg.)

Though planners try to empower communities, Stein said, "at a certain point, a lot of those things kind of fall apart." She suggested that the environmental review procedure, which requires disclosure of impacts and but does not require mitigations, should be reformed.

"But if we flip that, and make it an environmental benefit plan," she said, it could require specific performance from the developer.

Once a project gets the green light, she later elaborated, the community's response is channeled  is through the environmental review process, starting with the project scope, then addressing potential impacts and mitigations disclosed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement. "Since the project is developer-driven, the community finds itself responding to and working to make a non-community based project the least harmful rather than see a community vision come to fruition."

If projects don't emerge from community visions, she said, the developer-driven projects must be reviewed not just for their environmental impacts but also their benefits and how they meet community needs.

That, I suspect, could include locking in requirements for such things as affordable housing, or open space, rather than leaving the timing and scope loose.