Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Genial ESD CEO Adams meets with community members, gets praised for showing up, says state solidly supports Forest City, opposes governance entity, admits he has much to learn

Despite the general air of mutual cordiality and the non-defensiveness expressed by Empire State Development (ESD) CEO Kenneth Adams, the meeting last night which allowed Adams to meet with Brooklynites concerned about Atlantic Yards was somewhat odd on multiple levels.

First, the meeting for weeks was billed as an invitation-only affair, with questions to be submitted beforehand and to be delivered via elected officials.

However, just hours before the meeting, held at Brooklyn Borough Hall, ESD opened up the meeting to the press. (Besides me, the only other reporter to attend from the Daily News, and she left early.) During the meeting, community members were allowed to ask direct questions.

Second, though Adams was accompanied to the meeting by no fewer than seven ESD staffers, he pre-empted questions by saying he was "really here to understand." When faced with specific queries, he offered genial promises to look into things, rather than canvassing colleagues for an answer.

For example, Adams said he wanted to get more details about the community-sponsored UNITY plan, which would divide the site into multiple development parcels, as well as the developer’s specific obligations to get the project done.

Surely someone in the room could have told him that his agency long ago dismissed the UNITY plan, during the environmental review. (In other words, the questions themselves were somewhat naive.) Also, while several people, including Council Member Letitia James, said a 25-year project buildout was unacceptable, that’s exactly what the ESD negotiated.

Not discussed was that a state judge had slammed his agency for failure to study the impacts of an buildout that could last 25 years--and, rather than accept those decisions, the ESDC is appealing them (nonetheless while conducting a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement).

Bottom line

Still, the fact that Adams, a longtime Brooklynite who knew a reasonable slice of the 25 or so invited representatives and elected officials, had shown up was considered a major step forward, given the failure of any of his predecessors to hold such a meeting. (Adams previously headed the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, the MetroTech Bid, and, most recently, the Business Council.)

And there may be some progress on transportation planning and coordination between the police precincts and community boards that have a piece of the project site.

But Adams’ bottom line, delivered in his friendly manner, was unswerving: the state supports Forest City Ratner and believes the project will get done as promised.

That drew some cordial incredulity from a few attendees, one of whom pointed out that the first tower has been long delayed and no designs have been released for anything beyond the arena.

Moreover, in response to a question about the state's position on a new governance entity to oversee the project, Adams declared that Atlantic Yards was unlike other projects that do have such entities and, more dubiously, that, "Our board is making decisions about the project."

The ESDC board has not exactly followed the project closely As I've written, the former ESDC general counsel claimed at a state Senate oversight hearing that the board, not consultant AKRF finds blight--even though a board member couldn't even find Pacific Street on a project map.

Moreover, despite Adams’s desire to improve communication, he acknowledged that he had never looked at Atlantic Yards Watch, the community initiative that points to regular violations of Atlantic Yards site rules and, by implication, the state’s failure to press Forest City Ratner.

DDDB and BrooklynSpeaks

It also was curious to see project opponents like Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) and Eric McClure of Park Slope Neighbors/No Land Grab question Adams cordially, and get cordial, if somewhat brush-off answers in response.

The meeting also featured the first-ever (I believe) joint press release from DDDB and BrooklynSpeaks, which had previously taken different tacks on the project, and have even issued separate press releases on the abovementioned lawsuit, which combines cases each group filed separately.

In the press release, they asked:
Without altering the intent or spirit of the Atlantic Yards project, ESDC should now consider pragmatic changes that will foster success and accelerate its benefits.
• Build first on currently developable parcels, deferring the costly Vanderbilt Yards platform.
• Develop affordable housing in the manner and context of recent successes nearby.
• Open the development to additional teams in order to distribute the investment, the risk and the total work effort.
• Bring the community and its elected representatives to the table so we can all work together and win.
Queries about the developer

The first part of the meeting--before attendees knew that questions would be opened to the floor--began somewhat awkwardly, as James and then Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries queried Adams, while sitting next to him rather than opposite him. There were about 25 people in the audience.

“Does Forest City have the financial capability to build out the remainder of the project?” James asked.

“Well, we believe that they do,” Adams said, though no one asked him for evidence, nor did he provide it. “We are, ESD, a partner with Forest City Ratner. And we remain fully confident that they have the financing and the wherewithal to build out the project.”

Of course the ESD in 2009 said that, while there might be delays in the project, the arena and the first tower would proceed apace.



“How long are you prepared to give Forest City?” James asked.

“I’ll have to get back to you on that one,” Adams responded, though surely one of his staffers could have reminded him that the Development Agreement offers 12 years to build Phase 1 before penalties kick in and 25 years to build the project, with extensions possible.

“Isn’t it time to take the project away?” James asked.

“Well, no,” Adams responded. “While there have been delays, our development partner, Forest City, in terms of contractual obligations, has been compliant.”

Which is true, because the contract has been written pretty gently.

Oversight questions

Jeffries pointed out that former ESD head Dennis Mullen and former Governor David Paterson voiced support for a subsidiary to oversee Atlantic Yards governance, and asked Adams’s position. (The state’s position had not been made public, though Forest City has lobbied against such a subsidiary.)



“Every project’s different,” Adams responded. “And often governance bodies are set up for ESDC projects that are driven by funding sources.” For example, several projects have federal funds.

“For this project, while we have very important responsibilities, we're not the actual developer,” he said. “Again here, with respect to Atlantic Yards, ESDC has this role, we have a board of directors. We have a process--maybe, no doubt it can be improved upon, for communicating with the community, getting your input, making sure we have good communications... I can share that with our board. Our board is making decisions about the project. But there is a governance structure in place. I think we can do better with our existing structure than we’ve done in the past.”

Jeffries pointed out the role significant of public subsidies, zoning changes, and eminent domain, and that the project would not have happened without the state.

Is the state the developer in all the other projects, he asked Adams.

“Well, each one is different,” he said. “We have a more significant development role in Queens West, yes.”

Montgomery’s frustration

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery said she was happy to hear Adams say he wanted to open up communication. “I feel extremely frustrated and a lot insulted. Also, I’m embarrassed, because, throughout this entire process, we have not had [the opportunity to have] anything to say.”

She also criticized the initial format for the meeting, saying it was inappropriate to put her in the position of asking questions on behalf of her constituents--”they are the experts.”

“Up until now,” she said, “it’s been ESDC and the developer against all of us.”

Given that ESDC and the developer are together appealing the judicial ruling, that same framing might still apply.

Transportation issues

Peter Krashes of the Dean Street Block Association contrasted the bi-monthly Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meetings with the additional once-promised Transportation Working Group, which he said was necessary to address upcoming challenges.

Adams said he didn’t know much about either, but said the concerns sounded reasonable.

James said she agreed that the transportation issues are just so complicated that a task force is required, while the cabinet meeting addresses primarily existing conditions.

Adams said he didn’t know anything about the plan but would put it under consideration. (Hankin had said last week that she thought they should be addressed by the cabinet first.)

Goldstein’s questions

DDDB’s Goldstein pointed out that, while Adams said the project had been delayed by litigation, the groundbreaking was 18 months ago.”You also said Forest City can finance the project. Clearly they can’t finance it right now.”

Adams didn't respond directly.

Goldstein pointed to Forest City Ratner’s failure to hire an Independent Compliance Monitor for the Community Benefits Agreement and said that the state had left several property owners in limbo because they don’t know when the second phase of eminent domain would happen.

Adams said he didn’t know when either. He did say that, in the spirit of trying to improve communication, the agency is looking to hire a new community liaison for the project, essentially replacing Forrest Taylor, who left in June.

He invited people to suggest candidates--leaving the impression, contra Hankin’s statement in an interview in August, that a hire might come soon.

AY Watch

Wayne Bailey, a resident of Newswalk, the apartment complex on the path of the trucks going from the staging area to the arena site, asked Adams if he’d seen Atlantic Yards Watch.

Adams said no.



‘That has documents, all the things from traffic, trucks, the assault on the community,” Bailey said, with some frustration. “You’re talking about improving communications. Why do the residents have to to come in the community to develop these things, when you pay monitors?”

“I’ll check it out,” Adams responded.

Forest City “in the driver’s seat”

JoAnne Simon of BrooklynSpeaks said the state had appeared to be “either a defender of Forest City Ratner, or in the dark. And that Forest City is very much in the driver’s seat.. That’s been very problematic and very troubling to people.”

She warned that discussion about the project should involve Phase 1 (the arena block) as well as Phase 2.

“We are certainly confident that the arena’s going to open next September, and Forest City will break ground in that first building in the first quarter of next year, in 2012,” Adams said in response. (Forest City had earlier this year said groundbreaking would be this year.)

“There’s been very much a ‘go-away-don’t-bother-me” from both the agency and the developer” toward community involvement, Simon said. “We really need leadership, and a commitment from ESDC to work with us.”

“I am certainly committed on behalf of ESDC to that engagement,” Adams responded. “I assume you all know everything, because you’re really good at what you do... I don’t like the idea of people feeling really important information... is not getting to you.”

CBA compliance

Melvinia Harris, representing the First Atlantic Terminal Housing Committee, observed, without giving specifics, that signatories to the CBA are not doing some of what they’re supposed to do because “Forest City is really holding back a lot of information they need to get it going.”

(Harris is also on the board of Brooklyn Endeavor Experience, a CBA signatory.)

Adams said he didn’t know.

Cracking down?

McClure also pointed to the continued violations of site protocols as documented by Atlantic Yards Watch. “Part of being a partner is being frank with your partner,” he said. “It would go a long way to community confidence if you would take the bull by the horns and crack down. Can you help make that happen?”

Adams didn’t answer that one.

Security issues

McClure also pointed to the continued concern about security issues, given that Forest City was evasive in 2007 when asked how far the arena would be from the street, after Newark decided to close adjacent streets during events.

He said several groups and elected officials had asked for an independent security study. “We don’t need to know points of vulnerability, but it would really help the community’s comfort level to know, in an ironclad way, we’re not going to close a lane of Flatbush Avenue, or Atlantic Avenue on game nights.”

James added that she’d asked for a security study five times.

Adams nodded.

Getting pragmatic

“At best we can see is that Forest City Ratner has been coy with this community,” said Regina Cahill, president of the North Flatbush Avenue Business Improvement District and not associated with project opponents.

“The biggest concerns are around transportation, what police precinct is it going to sit in. Basically, they have created an environment where people can foment and rumor-monger. I think... being a pragmatic person, we need to know is there a way to wrest control from Forest City, or is that contractually out of the question?.. What can influence can we have?”

She said Adams needed a list from the community, and the community needed a list from him, of what can be pragmatically done.



Adams responded, “Our position, as I’ve said, despite the delays, we’re still fully confident that Forest City is going to build this whole thing and, over time, deliver all the promised benefits... I’m an optimist, you know me. It’s really going to be transformational, I think it’s going to be great. I think it’s going to bring to Brooklyn all the things that have been planned for and hoped for over these years. That doesn’t mean in the process there aren’t these sort of difficult conditions.”

So in the meantime, he said, they have to try to mitigate the impacts and protect people’s quality of life.

Cahill added later that the arena and project sit "at the nexus of three community boards, three precincts... I would think you want to talk to the community about how we use our own community before you draw lines."

Getting skeptical

Lucy Koteen, representing the Fort Greene Association (and a Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn stalwart), said, “You’ve heard here tonight and in the past how we’ve been rebuffed by the ESDC and the developer... and our elected officials... have also been denied access. We were told this was a ten-year project and it’s not... I’m puzzled when you say you trust the developer on his ability to fund this whole project, when we know he hasn’t had the money.”



She noted that Ratner went to China to get loans from immigrant investors seeking green cards and there have been no drawings of the project.

“It’s an enormous burden on all of us,” Koteen said. “We have been so disrespected.”

She pointed that Adams’s father, the late Murray Adams, “himself was opposed to the project... Why are we still being disrespected in our hope for a UNITY plan?”

Adams deflected the question with an anecdote about how he told his parents about the appointment, Both his parents picked up extensions. When he told his father, he said, Murray Adams screamed, “ESDC, that’s the agency that doesn’t listen to the people.”

His father, Adams said, “should be happy I’m here. But I’ve got to do more than listen, I recognize that.”

He said he’d like to learn more about the UNITY plan.

Re-doing the CBA?

Reverend Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Clinton Hill praised Adams: “I’m sure your presence will add to a less combative nature of the dialogue.”

He suggested “a more triangular version of development. Maybe it’s too late to add that template to the Atlantic Yards. But certainly the developer could not have gotten to this point without the ESDC. And it looks like the developer said whatever it had to say to get up to a billion dollars in taxpayers’ money.”

(It certainly wasn’t a billion in direct subsidies, but if you add up the tax breaks, naming rights, and opportunity costs--a billion is in the ballpark. For example, the New York City Independent Budget Office, excluding naming rights, tv revenues, and housing subsidies, counted a net savings on the arena to Forest City of more than $720 million.)

Miller asked if the ESDC and the governor could look at the CBA, given the failure to deliver jobs as promised.

Adams noted that he’d earlier been asked what the agency can do to advance the monitoring of the CBA.

“Not just the monitoring,” Miller said, suggesting a revision.

“We’re not a party to it,” Adams said, but he called Miller’s point “helpful emphasis, so I can look into it.”

Senator Adams's concerns

State Senator Eric Adams pointed to the ongoing security issue and the jobs issues. He suggested that problems be broken down into manageable levels.



“At the top of list for me is the safety plan,” said Adams, a former police captain. “We need to know how the police are going to do a good job.”

Final comments

Montgomery thanked Adams “for turning this ship around” and said, “I’m confident we now can move forward... we can now perhaps think about the future in a very different way. None of us are opposed to development.”

James, in her final comments, cited the ongoing issues of security, lack of accountability, transparency, and governance. “We need real timetables with real consequences,” she said. “Twenty-five years is totally, totally unacceptable.”

Of course that’s already in place.

Carlo Scissura, the Borough President’s Chief of Staff, invited audience members to attend the bimonthly District Service Cabinet meetings--which, I’d point out, are not publicly announced.

Also present was John Keefe, an aide to Assemblyman Jim Brennan. Not present, despite being billed as attending, was Council Member Stephen Levin. Also not present were anyone from Assemblymenber Joan Millman's office or Council Member Brad Lander's office. No one from Forest City Ratner was present.

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