Thursday, October 06, 2011

At DOT hearing on bollard plan, a challenge to claim that an effective width of 5'2" would not create sidewalk bottleneck outside arena

Clearly New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) hearings on "revocable consents"--permission to install structures on city property--are typically pro forma affairs, held in a small conference room in a Lower Manhattan building.

Well, yesterday's hearing, which included consideration of the bollard and street furniture plan for the Atlantic Yards arena block, was a little different. DOT staffers were faced with detailed testimony that took issue with a just-produced claim that a smaller sidewalk, with an effective width of 5'2", would make no difference to pedestrians.

After all, as testimony from the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council (PHNDC) indicated, the official analysis was based on 2006 pedestrian counts, not those generated by 2009 changes in the project plan which could deliver more people to the south side of Atlantic Avenue west of Pacific Street.

Will those comments make a difference? Unclear, but DOT will accept further comments through October 15 (via Emma Berenblit at eberenblit@dot.nyc.gov) and will review these in consultation with other DOT divisions or other agencies.

No deadline has been set for the agency's decision, though the latest Atlantic Yards Construction Alert indicated that a reconfiguration of Flatbush Avenue MPT (Maintenance and Protection of Traffic)--which recently began--would set the stage for bollard installation and facade work.

FCR testimony

The hearing, held in a conference room at 55 Water Street in Lower Manhattan, included four agenda items. The first three were disposed of without comment. Then came the Atlantic Yards item.

Speaking in favor of the plan, which involves 206 bollards--178 fixed, 28 removable, one foot in diameter--was Sonya Covington, a Forest City Ratner assistant vice-president. (She was accompanied by consultant Susan Walter of Stantec. Another FCR staffer, Michael Rapfogel, arrived later.)

The drawings, Covington said, reflect more than two years of coordination with various city agencies. The first step was consultation with New York Police Department counterterrorism division to determine standoffs and secure perimeter requirements.

Street furniture was placed, where possible, within the property line, she said, and where not, as close to the curb line as possible.

Covington noted that he drawings reflect the arena opening conditions, which reflect interim conditions, given that the four buildings around the arena "will be developed over time." (Forest City Ratner has 11 more years to build three towers.)

She addressed the zone at issue. "It is important to note that a portion of Atlantic Avenue west of Sixth Avenue will be nine feet eight inches during this interim condition but will increase to 20 feet" with the development of Building 4, she said.


She said that that interim condition had been analyzed by a consultant for the state and "has been found to achieve the same level of service."

White's comments against the plan

Michael D. D. White of Noticing New York, who's crusaded against Atlantic Yards in his blog and in colorful public testimony, pointed out that an effective width of 5'2", "is less than my height." (Here's his testimony, amplified with further commentary.)

"It is clear that we are debating… how many additional slivers are going to be added to Forest City Ratner's 50-plus-acre, government-assisted mega-monopoly," White pronounced. "After all that has been taken from the public by government for Forest City, do these additional slivers matter? They do if we recognize that we are in the 'straw that breaks the camel's back territory' and that each additional sliver for Ratner must be considered insult added to previous significant injuries."



He showed DOT staffers a graphic (below) with Mayor Mike Bloomberg's face superimposed on the body of Queen Elizabeth the First of England, suggesting that the mayor, like the Queen, had abused his position to hand out lucrative monopolies.

White likened Forest City's security plan to an effort to get a pipeline approved, as described in emails involving the State Department, in which an exception is sought after approval. "Isn't this, after the fact, and after the approval, cramming the arena into his neighborhood much the same thing happening here?"
 he asked.

After his testimony, White sparred a bit with Anne Koenig, executive director, Franchies, Concessions, and Consents for the DOT, who explained that the agency generally doesn't transcribe oral testimony. He wrote:
I asked how anyone would know what my testimony was if it wasn’t transcribed and how it could then be part of the record. I was told that the people in the room had heard it and that if anyone wanted to hear it they could ask for the recording.

This was confusing to me. I asked who the decision makers were and how they would receive the input of my testimony. I don’t believe I got a satisfactory answer or any answer at all.

When I used to personally conduct public hearings or supervise them when I worked at the state finance authorities those testifying were told what would be done with their testimony and how it would be used. I am not saying that it is necessary to provide this information at a public hearing but I think it should be provided if it is asked for. Perhaps no one there knew the answer to my questions. No one had testified with respect to the three prior agenda items that had come before Atlantic Yards so testimony may be unusual. But the refusal or inability to answer these queries should raise questions about the legal sufficiency of the process and it certainly says something about whether the process is regarded as being a meaningful process of actually listening to those providing testimony.
When I followed up later with DOT, I wasn't told who exactly would make the decision, though I did get a general response explaining that comments would be reviewed and there was no set time for a decision.

PHNDC testimony

PHNDC rep Peter Krashes noted that the organization had previously called attention to the truncated sidewalks (also see Atlantic Yards Watch), and that HDR, a consultant to Empire State Development, had concluded that the Level of Service (LOS) would remain at the highest level, A.

He said:
The problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t appear to take into account in full the obstructions and shy distances evident on the bollard plans. As an example, looking at the area termed S6a, the Tech Memo appears to identify either one obstruction of 1.5 feet and a shy distance of 3 feet, or the other way around. This does not appear consistent with the methodology outlined earlier in the Memo that states the sum of obstructions and shy distances will be removed from the total walkway width.



For example, Krashes observed, with a lightpost 3.5 feet in width from the curb that width should be added to a shy distance of 1.5 feet and a shy distance from the interior fence of 1.5 feet--thus leading to an effective sidewalk of 3'2". Beyond that, he said, light posts and permanent bollards would further cut down the sidewalk.

He suggested that a person of low mobility, for example using a wheelchair, would have significant difficulty using the curb should arena patrons be coming in the other direction.

Undercounting pedestrians?

Krashes pointed to a flaw in the calculations:
HDR analysis of sidewalks uses pedestrian numbers from the 2006 FEIS [Final Environmental Impact Statement], even though the sidewalk conditions being analyzed are based on the 2009 Modified General Project Plan [MGPP]. The 2009 MGPP outlined changes to the project that affect pedestrian movement around the arena site, but the impact on pedestrians was not sufficiently analyzed in the accompanying 2009 Tech Memo. Among the changes, the 2009 MGPP relocated the VIP entrance from Dean Street to Atlantic Avenue, and it relocated 100 parking spots from the arena block to block 1129.

Unfortunately, the 2009 Tech Memo provides no quantitative analysis of how moving the VIP entrance would impact sidewalk conditions on Atlantic Avenue. Instead, HDR was forced to rely on an outdated number of pedestrians for its LOS [Level of Service] calculation in its analysis of the bollard plan. To give a sense of why this matters, consider the following: according to the 2006 FEIS, 500 parking spaces on block 1129 are reserved for VIP parking, with a vehicle occupancy rate of 2.35 persons during weekdays. 1,175 VIP arena patrons will make their way from block 1129 to the VIP entrance on Atlantic Avenue, passing the constricted sidewalk on Atlantic between Fort Greene Place and Sixth Avenue. The HDR analysis of the bollard plan never takes into account these additional 1,175 pedestrians on the constricted sidewalk between Fort Greene Place and Sixth Avenue...
Beyond that, there are 4,400 All-Access ticket packages for sale, and those include use of the VIP entrance.

He also noted there was no analysis of the impact of the Demand Management program--i.e., shuttle buses--on pedestrian concentrations on arena sidewalks.

Given the lack of information, he said DOT should not approve the bollard plan at this time but instead correct the technical memo and seek an updated analysis of pedestrian conditions. One solution might be to widen sidewalks that are temporarily or permanently more narrow than the anticipated widths in the FEIS.

Failure of oversight

Krashes was allowed to speak for some six minutes, so the message--less confrontational than that of White and directly on point--may have been given some greater degree of credence. He stated:
The bollard plan provides a small window for the public into the development of the vehicular and pedestrian plans of this project. The 2009 Modified General Project Plan was not reviewed by NYCDOT prior to its adoption by the ESDC board.  ESDC has never implemented either the monthly meetings of an interagency working group or the transportation-working group promised in 2007. Instead, the locus of plan development is situated almost entirely with for-profit Forest City Ratner and their hired consultants. And we know gaps exist in the preparation of the plans because the mitigations have been cherry-picked from the 2006 FEIS, even though the plans being implemented follow the outline of the 2009 Modified General Project Plan.
Warnings about security

Alan Rosner, representing the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, pointed out that a 20-foot standoff distance is not adequate under New York Police Department (NYPD) guidelines. (He later explained to me that, while no specific number appears in existing NYPD documents, the federal standard is now 10 meters, or nearly 33 feet.)

And NYPD, in 2006, had said bollards would not be needed, he pointed out.

Why the change? Perhaps, he said, because in 2009 the NYPD issued a study, Engineering Security, that classified high-risk buildings and indicated the need for more measures.


Street closing?

Though state officials have said no streets would be closed, Rosner said it seemed clear that one or more lanes adjacent to the arena along Atlantic Avenue would have to be closed, given that the arena, at least from its "overhang" level, would be some 15 feet from the street.

He asked that DOT delay the decision until the full scope of the security measures required by the NYPD are presented. He reminded the officials that, two weeks prior to the opening of the Prudential Center in Newark in 2007, city officials ordered two streets bordering the arena to be closed.

NYPD guidance

From Engineering Security:
Generally, owners of Medium and High Tier buildings should seek to maximize the amount of protected standoff surrounding a structure. However, available standoff in dense urban areas generally does not exceed the width of a sidewalk; moreover, this distance is only guaranteed if the building is protected with a hard anti-ram perimeter [ed.--bollards].

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