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At Atlantic Yards CDC, a “chilling effect on community input” means the state advises itself on contract renewals

Yesterday’s belatedly-scheduled Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation (AY CDC) was over in an about hour, without any big news. (See my separate article with some updates.) Perhaps the most important thing was that a body set up to add outside voices and accountability to a problematic megaproject seemed to bow to expediency and the status quo.

Barely any members of the public attended the 3 pm meeting at Empire State Development (ESD) offices in Manhattan, which had been announced less than a day earlier, after a meeting scheduled for last Friday fell through for lack of a quorum. This meeting drew five six AY CDC board members, three of whom work in ESD offices, and a quorum was apparently possible because the 14-member board has several at least two vacancies.

ESD, the state economic development authority, both oversees and shepherds the project, a potentially contradictory goal. The Executive Director of the AY CDC, Tobi Jaiyesimi, since her hiring also took on the role of ESD’s Atlantic Yards Project Manager, so she is, essentially, managing a process to advise herself.

“Chilling effect,” and a partial response

Alexis Sfikas, a staffer for Brooklyn Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, made a brief, pointed public comment near the end of the meeting: “Assemblymember Simon just wanted to express some concern with the scheduling of these meetings. She thinks that it’s probably going to have a chilling effect on community input if neighbors don’t find out until 23 hours before these meetings happen.”

As the meeting closed, Marion Phillips III, an ESD executive who serves as AY CDC president, replied, first addressing the board members: “I know this is an issue of scheduling. We do appreciate all of you taking your time, you volunteer your time to be a part of this. I know some of you are able to get out a little easier than others. We do respect—you’re all professionals with jobs, so thank you.”

He continued: “And we do apologize, to the public and all of you—all of you know, we do a polling [of directors’ availability], three or four weeks before a meeting. Our intent is to have a meeting. Obviously when you’re dealing with so many people and their schedules it’s difficult. So we do apologize that you were notified 24 hours in advance of today’s meeting. Our goal is always to have these meetings in Brooklyn. But when we can’t, we can’t, because of our polling, and the quorum.”

That not address the impact on community input or the fact that community members who’d written a letter challenging the board to push harder on contracts for project monitors weren't able to be present. (Some meetings have been held at Long Island University; a venue must offer the technology for webcasting or video recording.)

Nor did his statement address what may be the key reason to hastily reschedule the meeting: the desire to get the AY CDC on record as endorsing the extension of those contracts before the full ESD board meets tomorrow. (There’s no agenda yet, but I suspect the contracts are on that agenda.)

Advise and consent

The AY CDC was asked to recommend extending ESD consulting contracts for an environmental monitor, the firm HDR, and an owners’ representative, STV. The essential logic was the same as last year—that the uncertain nature of the project’s future—with no new vertical construction planned--means it’s not wise to go through a full Request for Proposals process to address future impacts.

“The directors should know that we are committed to issuing an RFP for both contracts once we have a better sense of what the next phase of construction, namely Site 5, will look like, program-wise,” said Phillips, referring to the giant two-tower project suggested for the site currently home to Modell’s and P.C. Richard. He said they were open to ideas to increase the community role, including suggestions raised in January from former Director Jaime Stein.

Adjusting the consultants' scope of work?

Phillps cited two versions of letter (bottom) from Peter Krashes, on behalf of the Dean Street Block Association and the Barclays Center Impact Zone Alliance, and offered responses to most but not all his points. “Our goal is to adjust the project’s oversight from a ten year to a twenty or thirty year construction project by eliminating any gaps in oversight, improving timely response and coordination, and increasing project transparency and accountability,” wrote Krashes.

The RFP should be modified to “adjust the environmental monitor’s scope of work to include problem sources as identified during the community RFP input process,” Krashes wrote.

Phillips responded that the scope of work was defined by a previously negotiated Memorandum of Environmental Commitments, or MEC. (That said, the document was not drafted with a view to such a lengthy buildout.) “When a new RFP is issued, the scope of work will remain as defined as in the MEC,” Phillips said.

That’s not at all clear. While the MEC describes requirements regarding such issues as noise, traffic, and dust, it doesn’t specify, for example, how often they should be monitored. So it’s likely that the scope of work, which has not been made public, has some flexibility.

More community access?

Krashes also requested a way to “create routine engagement between the Environmental Monitor and the community on and near the project site.” Phillips said that concerns could be sent to ESD or the developer’s Community Liaison Officer (CLO).

Though Krashes couldn’t attend the meeting—or watch it via webcast (see below)—he later commented to me that the monitor has a different role than the developer’s CLO or the state employees, and that community access to that monitor would “eliminate the middleman.”

“ESD has three people who really work on this on this project, Tobi [Jaiyesimi] who is full time… Greg [Lynch], who is a community liaision, out in field every day, and Drew Gabriel… director of community relations,” who also works on all three, said Phillips. “The community has access to Tobi and has access to Greg."

Actually, I don’t think Lynch has said more than a “hello” at any public meeting, and he’s never been described as a community liaison or someone the public should talk to.

“Greg really plays a key role in the process of community relations, because Greg is there on site,” Phillips said, “and Greg is able to know what violations, or what mistakes are being made, related to tire-washing or what have you. Greg is able to inform the Community Liaison [Officer], to inform Tobi, to inform our consultants so things can move rather quickly, addressing the concerns raised by the community.”

Krashes's letter also suggested lessening the ability of project contractors “to anticipate the timing, location and/or focus of the Environmental Monitor and Owner’s Rep’s visits.”

Phillips commented the monitor visits four times a week with no set schedule. That didn’t clarify whether the visit is pre-announced or not.

Improved reporting?

Krashes also asked for more timely response to problems and improved reporting. Phillips said the state monitor coordinates with the developer’s monitor. “So we believe the consultant and staff are working in tandem,” he said, and the “MEC is being followed.”

Phillips said the monitor’s site visits are documented in the weekly reports provided to ESD, and described in quarterly reports to the AY CDC directors. That didn’t address concerns, raised two years ago by former AY CDC Director Stein, that HDR’s quarterly reports came six months late.

A final issue in Krashes’s March 26 letter—“increase the quality and timing of information to the AY CDC and public”—was not addressed, perhaps because it did not appear in the March 21 letter.

How well does it work?

Director Cy Richardson asked for example of “how this structure has worked in diffusing tension and achieving consensus on any element of the project.”

There was no member of the public to confirm that it had, in fact, worked.

Jaiyesimi brought up concerns about rodents at the B15 site, east of Sixth Avenue between Dean and Pacific streets, and noted that the developer got the maintenance and management team for 38 Sixth, across the street, to perform site maintenance, including baiting for rat. “There were some pictures brought to the last Quality of Life meeting,” she said, referencing community complaints. “Since then, the site has been cleaned up… our environmental monitor makes sure that rodent control program is being kept up with, adequate trash upkeep.”

Dean St. Block Association photos, September 2018
She noted that Lynch, “when he does his regular site walk through, can report back to me… he was the first to tell me when the baiting signs were put up on the B15 fence.” She concluded, “there are a number of different ways there are eyes and ears on the ground, so there’s responsiveness to the community’s concerns.”

Krashes commented to me that the had been “neglected all summer, with rodents, weeds, and garbage,” and that, after the issue was raised publicly, the developer took weeks to address it. Indeed, a representative of the developer, at public meeting, acknowledged, "You're right, it's disgusting."

“What Tobi said addressed none of that whole preliminary component," he said.

Approval granted

Referencing Krashes’s letter about adjusting the oversight to a new timeline, Richardson asked if the renewal motion was consistent with that concern.

“Both contracts,” Phillips said, “both consultants have been very good… The fact that we have a system in place that we can communicate on a regular basis, the fact that we can address concerns very quickly, the fact that we give you a quarterly report… That is I believe proof positive that these are the right people right now.”

“Between ESD staff, the consultants, and working with the developer on a weekly basis,” he said, “I do believe we’re meeting those goals.”

With no dissenting voices, the board voted to recommend that ESD extend the HDR contract for one year, with a one-year renewal option, for a maximum of $500,000, which is paid for from an account funded by the developer.

Also, the board voted to recommend extending the $1.25 million, two-year contract with STV, whose job is to make sure that the developer is in compliance with design and construction documents. Though Krashes’ second letter also referred to public review of the STV contract, that was not mentioned at the meeting.

No webcast, either

Though residents who could not attend the meeting in person were told it would be webcast, as is standard, no webcast was available in real time. After I alerted Phillips during the meeting, he made a public statement: “I just wanted to let everyone know that the webcast is being recorded and it will be uploaded to our website. It’s not being live right now. We just didn’t—we were unable to get all the timing—the feed—available. So it’s being recorded, and will be uploaded to our web site, as prescribed by law.”

According to the state Open Meetings Law, meetings should be broadcast “to the extent practicable,” a clause that offers an out if the equipment isn’t working:
Open meetings of an agency or authority shall be, to the extent practicable and within available funds, broadcast to the public and maintained as records of the agency or authority. If the agency or authority maintains a website and utilizes a high speed internet connection, such open meeting shall be, to the extent practicable and within available funds, streamed on such website in real-time, and posted on such website within and for a reasonable time after the meeting.
As of 8 am this morning, the webcast was still not working. (Update 3/29/18 7:30 am: a videotaped version is available. I'm not sure when it went live.)