Friday, February 10, 2012

Exclusive: the Carlton Avenue Bridge is delayed one month, setting up breakneck pace to achieve completion before arena opens; officials have not acknowledged delays

Though neither Forest City Ratner nor city/state officials have said so, the reconstruction of the Carlton Avenue Bridge, a crucial connector between Prospect Heights and Fort Greene, is lagging a month behind schedule, state documents confirm.

The delay has sparked a breakneck construction pace to meet the new completion date of late September 2012, just before the first official Barclays Center event, a sure-to-be-sold-out Jay-Z concert on 9/28/12.

Just yesterday, Empire State Development, the state agency in charge of the project, announced that work to finish the bridge could go as late as 3 am on weekdays through September.

That means that painfully bright (to some) floodlights will illuminate the Vanderbilt Yard until 3 am--and, as experience has shown, likely even longer. And if the bridge doesn't get done in time, nearby streets would face confusion and chaos on event days, at least initially.

(February 2010 photo by Tracy Collins)

Key connection

The bridge, closed since January 2008 to enable renovation work in the below-ground Long Island Rail Road's Vanderbilt Yard, not only offers a key artery, it borders the planned surface parking lot, a magnet for up to 1100 vehicles.


The $40 million bridge reconstruction is an Arena Opening Condition, a requirement in a document Forest City signed with Empire State Development, the state agency overseeing the project.

It's a practical one too. The artery's absence could plunge area traffic into chaos, especially given the inevitable shakeout period in which arena-goers and area drivers learn to regulate down their vehicle use before events.

It would put an intense burden on narrow Sixth Avenue, which borders the arena and was made two-way upon the closure of the Carlton Avenue Bridge. No wonder previous intimations of delays have provoked concern and consternation among elected officials.

That contractual requirement, however, is essentially toothless, by my reading. A failure to finish the bridge would not stop the arena from getting a crucial Temporary Certificate of Occupancy or from hosting events.

Rather, it would freeze Forest City's ability to pursue new development on the Atlantic Yards site. However, if the developer by then has gotten B2, the long-delayed first tower, off the ground--and that's not unlikely--the stall would be meaningless.

(Could this be what soon-to-depart Forest City executive Bruce Bender meant when, during his wiretapped conversation with disgraced state Senator Carl Kruger, he declared, "I don't mind fucking the bridge"? Bender tried unsuccessfully to get $9 million in state funds to defray Forest City's tab.)

ESD consultant warns agency

The bridge delay has been documented in weekly reports to Empire State Development, the agency supervising the project, from its consultant STV, which serves as the "owner's representative"--the agency's "eyes and ears"--at the site.

For example, in STV's 9/23/11 report, excerpted at right, the consultant reported that the project was one month behind schedule, with a forecasted completion in late September 2012.

In fact, STV reported that "the schedule had slipped an additional week" and was being reworked, though it also noted that the pace "has generally picked up in the last two weeks. A week later, STV again reported that the pace had picked up.

That one-week slippage may have been recovered, but there's been no budging on the overall timetable, apparently. (I reviewed the reports after filing a Freedom of Information Law request.)

Forest City steps up pace

Forest City has been feeling the heat. As construction chief Bob Sanna said at the 11/3/11Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting, the schedule had been accelerated to a "premium time program... five days a week, ten hours a day,” with an eight-hour day on Saturdays. “We're watching that schedule carefully to be complete in anticipation of the arena opening."

They soon began pushing even harder. Forest City's contractors began an accelerated, double-shift pace, as announced in the 12/19/11 Construction Alert.

That hasn't made a huge dent. The most recent report I saw, dated 1/20/12 and excerpted above, again stated that the bridge project was "officially one month behind schedule and is forecast to be complete in late September."

The report did allow for potential "time savings" from use of a temporary pier. But that couldn't have been enough, given yesterday's announcement of work until 3 am.

Forest City: "early" September

Officials' statements to the public have been less than candid. Six days after the STV report referenced immediately above pointed to "late September" as a completion date, Forest City's Sanna, appearing at the 1/26/12 Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting, declared that "the projected completion of the bridge... is the early part of September."

Maybe Forest City had made remarkable progress in the previous week or, more likely given yesterday's announcement, Sanna was spinning a bit. Either way, he didn't mention that the bridge was behind schedule.

Frustrating history of delays

Before I saw the STV reports, I suggested 1/9/12 that the available evidence--including a delayed start and a search for funding--suggested that the bridge reconstruction was behind.

The delay in the bridge is part of a frustrating history. The bridge, which connects Pacific Street to Atlantic Avenue and thus Prospect Heights to Fort Greene, closed in 1/23/08. In January 2009, the city Department of Transportation (DOT) said the work "is scheduled for completion January 2010.

That was subsequently nudged back to January 2011, April 2012, and, as the DOT currently states in rather vague terms, "estimated for completion summer 2012." (The end of summer is September 21.)

At the 11/3/11 Atlantic Yards District Service Cabinet meeting, Council Member Letitia James asked the DOT's Chris Hrones if the agency was tracking progress with the long-delayed bridge.

“Our bridges people are monitoring that project,” Hrones said, but he didn’t mention the delays.

What if it's not finished?

Council Member Steve Levin asked Sanna, “Do we have a projected date of completion, and what happens if it's not open, what if you can't finish it by that time?”

“It is required to be open, and we are monitoring it very carefully,” replied Sanna, who also referenced the DOT’s role. “So we're working very aggressively to ensure that it does open.” Unlike at the cabinet meeting in January 2012, Sanna didn't provide a specific completion date.

Levin continued: "What if it doesn’t?"

“We're not contemplating that it will not open,” replied Sanna.

“In the world of capital construction, stuff gets delayed all the time, so I’m just wondering,” Levin said.

“That has not been our track record to date,” responded Sanna.

As I noted, the bridge reconstruction was initially supposed to take two years. It was delayed, in part, by Forest City’s redesign of the railyard to save money.

An explanation on video

The plan for the bridge was raised at a 2/24/10 public meeting held at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. (Videography by Jonathan Barkey.)



"The Carlton Avenue Bridge is a bit of a conundrum, so it's hard for people to understand it," Forest City Ratner executive Marshall replied. "Because it spans the Long Island [Rail Road] railyard, and the Long Island railyard is the storage yard, so it has the trains in it. The tracks are being reconfigured, with a new design, and the bridge columns... have to be built in sequence with the redevelopment of the yard."

"So, the yard is being done in four phases," Marshall continued. "The Carlton Avenue Bridge is required to be open when the arena opens. It will be built with the third phase of the yard. So we expect it to open in 2012, with the arena, and we would do it as fast as we can, but unfortunately, it's not just building a bridge, it's building a yard."

That four-stage process was a project of Forest City's revisions in its plan to reconstruct the yard. In a 9/23/08 email from Forest City Assistant VP Kate Bicknell to mayoral advisor Nnenna Lynch, a three-stage process, not a four-phase one, was contemplated:
The bridge is being demolished and reconstructed in three stages, which correspond to stages 1 (temporary yard), 2 & 3 (permanent yard) of the LIRR yard construction. As you know, we are currently constructing the temp yard (stage 1), which includes the demolition of the southern half of the bridge. The demolition of the northern half of the bridge as well as the full reconstruction of the bridge are part of stages 2 and 3 (permanent yard) of the LIRR yard construction, which will begin after LIRR's sign-off of permanent yard construction drawings. We are nearing completion of the temp yard and the demolition of the southern half of the bridge....
Neither of those scenarios were contemplated in the 2006 Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the Empire State Development Corporation (now known more frequently without "Corporation").

Chapter 17, Construction Impacts made no reference to such phasing. Rather, the bridge was presumed to be fully demolished and reconstructed within two years, during the construction of the temporary yard.

Who's paying?

The reconstruction project is supposed to cost at least $40 million. The city in 2007 allocated $7 million. According to a 6/24/10 Empire State Development Corporation document:
It is expected that the Carlton Avenue Bridge related infrastructure work will cost in excess of $40 million. The City shall fund $24 million of the cost of the Carlton Avenue Bridge related infrastructure work. The remaining cost will be funded by Forest City.
Not if the developer could help it. Bender tried to get $9 million from the state, but was stymied.

Still, some more public money has been found. Congress in 2010 allotted $900,000 for the bridge based on a request from the city made via local representatives. (The request was apparently $3.5 million.)

As stated in Brooklyn Rep. Yvette Clarke's list of appropriations:
The City of New York requested $900,000 for reconstruction the Carlton Avenue Bridge in Brooklyn, NY to provide a vital north- south connection over the Long Island Railroad’s Vanderbilt Yard. Bridge reconstruction is a critical element to improving transportation between the Prospect Heights and Fort Greene neighborhoods.
Not just "a critical element to improving transportation."

A critical element to avoiding chaos.

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