Wednesday, January 09, 2008

AY ombudsman faces critical audience, says Community Advisory Committee coming

Atlantic Yards ombudsman Forrest Taylor met a cordial but sometimes prickly audience last night at a meeting held by the Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN), which has been significantly critical of the project and is a plaintiff challenging the Empire State Development Corporation’s (ESDC) environmental review of the project.

(Photos by Jonathan Barkey)

Taylor, appointed by the ESDC at the end of November after a 203-day wait, got high marks for his accessibility--CBN co-chair Candace Carponter said he always answered the phone. But several among the 60 or so people at St. Cyril's Belarusian Cathedral on Atlantic Avenue found him not-so-reassuring when he repeated the ESDC stance on issues of security and traffic.

City Council Member David Yassky reminded Taylor of concerns that streets might have to close, as in Newark, given that the glass-walled Atlantic Yards arena would be set back the same distance from the street. Taylor said the ESDC had been briefed by the New York Police Department, which is “100 percent comfortable with security measures.”

And Patti Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition reported that, in conversations with firefighters at Engine Company 219 on Dean Street near Sixth Avenue, which uses Carlton Avenue regularly to cross Atlantic Avenue to respond to calls, had not been briefed on the planned January 16 closing of the Carlton Avenue bridge.

Taylor said he wasn’t privy to internal Fire Department conversations, but that the ESDC had received assurances that the department could do its job despite the closed bridge. (Hagan further pointed out that the ESDC notice neglected to inform people the bridge would be closed for two years.)

Facilitator, not public advocate?

The meeting showed a contrast between two visions of the job: the ESDC wants a communicator, a fixer, who can bridge gaps between the many agencies and interested parties so essential information is exchanged. Community critics want a public advocate who might reach some independent conclusions.

“I think we thought an ombudsman would be a little more objective,” said CBN co-chair Terry Urban (at right, with Taylor) after the hour-long meeting. “We want him to ask them [agencies like the police and fire departments] to go further.”

Taylor, for his part, called the evening “illuminating. You get to hear what people are feeling. They won’t always like the answers, but at least there’s someone to reach.” Tieless at the end of the day, he was cordial but unflappable, and when speeches ended in murky questions he sometimes said he didn’t understand the point.

Another body may have to break the logjam in some instances. City Council Member Letitia James said that she’d requested that the Council’s Public Safety Committee question the police department regarding security plans. Added Yassky, “we’d like to get the police department... to be as public as possible.” (At right, Yassky, with James in background.)

As Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) put it, “The thing that’s hanging out there is, ‘How is this different from Newark?’”

Job description

Taylor began by describing his two main responsibilities: to bring issues of community concern back to the ESDC, and to “keep the project on track” by coordinating among the “alphabet-soup list of agencies” responsible for some aspect of Atlantic Yards. “Obviously a project as large as this is going to create headaches,” he said. “My job is to minimize them.”

While Taylor has been working out of ESDC’s Midtown Manhattan offices, he said he plans to soon move to 55 Hanson Place in Fort Greene, an office building which also houses the office of Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries and is a few steps away from a building with the office of Council Member James.

CBN asked members of the audience to introduce themselves and state their organizational affiliation and neighborhood location. One Dean Street resident described her location as “directly across from the project.” Goldstein (right), whose Pacific Street condo would be demolished for AY, quipped that he was “directly under the project.”

Community Advisory Committee coming

Carponter reminded Taylor of a letter CBN sent ESDC last fall asking for a progress report on oversight measures announced in May. Taylor said an interagency working group “will be working on a monthly basis.”

As for a transportation working group, he said it would be “a subcommittee of a newly-reconstituted Community Advisory Committee.” (Such a committee was established during the approval process, but hardly met. (Updated) Also, the environmental lawsuit says a required CAC was limited to representatives of the three Community Boards, the ESDC, New York City, and the Brooklyn Borough President's office and thus did not have meaningful participation.)

He said local elected officials would shortly be asked to nominate members, as would the three affected Brooklyn Community Boards: 2, 6, and 8. And how often would the committee meet? At least quarterly, he said, a frequency that provoked some derisive sounds from the audience.

Would meetings be open? That’s up to the CAC. While Taylor was asked if CBN would get a representative, he responded, “You know your elected officials just as well as I do.”

What do you say?” asked DDDB's Lucy Koteen of James.

“Yes,” the Council member responded.

Still, it seems a good distance from the new governance structure proposed by BrooklynSpeaks.

Bridge closing

Koteen said that the closing of the Carlton Avenue bridge would put a squeeze on traffic. “I would’ve appreciated it if agencies had come to discuss it with the community,” she said, giving the Fort Greene Association as an example.

“Duly noted,” said Taylor, adding, “Certainly this was looked at by the DOT [Department of Transportation].”

A resident of Dean Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues noted that residents faced gridlock 12 hours a day and asked what’s being done to mitigate it. “There are several things in this voluminous document,” Taylor responded, referring to the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Maureen Shea (right) of Park Slope Greens observed that, “in general this project has ignored the experience of the pedestrian.” She asked what Taylor’s office would do “if the project doesn’t go forward,” an outcome she desires.

“We’re not contemplating the project not going forward,” Taylor responded sharply. “The project has been approved” and is moving forward. (Still, two major lawsuits remain unresolved.)

Money questions

Yassky, who got far weaker applause than did James, asked Taylor if a funding agreement had been finalized for the project, presumably for the direct subsidies. “There’s a city part and a state part,” Taylor said. “I think the state is done.” However, it’s one agreement, so “until both are done, neither are done.”

Goldstein asked if agreements regarding housing subsidies and payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) had been finalized. Taylor said no.

Vote of support

At least one person at the meeting, former Fort Greene Association chairman Howard Pitsch, expressed support for the project, stating he was encouraged to learn, via a Courier-Life article, of Forest City Ratner’s “very good” track record hiring minority- and women-owned businesses.

Will Taylor help ensure continuance of such hiring, Pitsch asked. Taylor said the first e-mail he got was from a minority businessperson. “It was pretty easy to set them up with Forest City Ratner.”

Interesting, not “sexy”

After the meeting, I asked Taylor, who has a background in city government, state government, and as a consultant/lobbyist, how he came to take the job. “Someone reached out,” he said. “It was an interesting project, a big project, a high-profile project. It excited me.”

He has apparently learned to not describe Atlantic Yards as a “sexy project,” as he did in a Daily News interview after his appointment.

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