Thursday, August 19, 2010

State E-Mails Skeptical of Willets Point Project by Fernanda Santos -

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The $3 billion development of Willets Point would replace junkyards and car repair shops. Robert Bennett- NY Times
Even as the Bloomberg administration promotes the $3 billion development of Willets Point in Queens as one of its signature projects, state officials whose approval is needed have privately raised concerns over highway ramps crucial to the proposal and have questioned whether the development will ever get off the ground.

State officials have repeatedly expressed frustration with the city’s inability to provide reliable information and the pressure it was placing on them to expedite their analysis, according to a review of hundreds of e-mails involving the Willets Point project that were provided to The New York Times by an opponent of the project.

Michael Bergmann, a structural engineer for the State Department of Transportation who was part of the team reviewing the city’s application, wrote to the department’s regional director and other colleagues on Dec. 28: “Unless the preparers of this report start accepting the idea that it is seriously flawed, we are going nowhere.”

About a month later, after pointing out a mistake in a document that put the development’s completion date as 2107 instead of 2017, Peter King, a project manager for the state, wrote to a colleague, “Perhaps that reference to 2107 may have been closer to the truth than anyone realizes.”

By that point, the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which was overseeing the project, was pushing state officials to finish their work so that the ramps, which would connect Willets Point to the Van Wyck Expressway, could move on to the final stage of approval by the Federal Highway Administration.

Several months later, state officials did not seem very optimistic about the project’s future.

“If I were a betting man, I’d start dropping the odds regarding success for E.D.C. on this project,” Mr. King said in an e-mail to a state transportation analyst on May 11. “Resistance seems to be building.”

He was reacting in part to a group of business and property owners in Willets Point who had organized an effort to try to derail the project. As part of that, the opponents had filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the State Transportation Department seeking copies of all communications on the plan, hoping to pry open a behind-the-scenes bureaucratic process the public often knows very little about.

They also were hoping the e-mails would provide fodder for their campaign. The messages — about 200 from May 2007 to May 2010, among State Transportation Department staff members, federal highway officials, city officials and private consultants — show the state’s concern about the safety, design and traffic impact of the ramps.

A spokesman for the development corporation, David Lombino, said those concerns were being addressed in a revised plan that the city intended to submit to the state by the end of the year. Mr. Lombino conceded, however, that the ramps’ approval “has been more time-consuming than originally planned.”

The e-mails show state regulators raising various concerns. Do traffic projections account for simultaneous events at Citi Field stadium next to the development site and the nearby Billie Jean King National Tennis Center after Willets Point is fully occupied? Could one of the exit curves be too tight? Might the cluster of exits and merges confuse drivers and lead to accidents?
Such back and forth among different government agencies working together on a specific matter is certainly not uncommon — particularly on large, ambitious projects like Willets Point, which envisions the construction of 5,500 apartments, office buildings, retail stores and a hotel, replacing the auto repair shops, factories and junkyards that have operated there for decades.

What seems unusual is the annoyance state regulators expressed with the work of the consultants hired by the city to work on the ramps’ design. The consultants submitted numerous written responses and clarifications to questions and sat with the regulators in several meetings, but still failed to satisfy them, the messages show.

“We have reviewed this whole package several times, and we keep seeing the same things,” Mr. Bergmann wrote to Mr. King and Tracy Sayegh Gabriel, a vice president at the development corporation, on Dec. 30. “Clarification is not our problem — we understand the design concepts. There are several key elements in the draft report that we are not willing to accept.”

Mr. Lombino said disagreements were a part of the process, adding, “We make proposals and then work closely with our counterpart agencies and regulators, revising those proposals to produce the best project possible.”

As part of the approval process for the project, the city is preparing an assessment of the ramps’ impact on the environment, which will be the subject of a public hearing next month. The assessment has to be reviewed by state transportation officials and the federal highway agency, which can approve it or request a more extensive review, an outcome that would further delay the project.

The ramps must be built before the city can exercise its eminent domain power to take any land at Willets Point from owners who are unwilling to sell. Many of the owners of larger properties there have already agreed to sell.

Mr. Lombino said the city controlled nearly 80 percent of the land in the area that would be the first phase of the development, on the southern tip of the 60-acre site, which is roughly bordered by Roosevelt Avenue, 126th Street and the Van Wyck Expressway.

But about 20 owners of land and businesses are resisting and have filed a motion in State Supreme Court in Manhattan seeking to force the city to redo its environmental review of the entire project.

They have hired a lobbyist who helped defeat Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plans to build a mall at the old Kingsbridge armory in the Bronx, and an environmental lawyer and traffic engineer who played key roles in the fight against Westway, an underground highway proposed along the West Side of Manhattan.

“We’re looking for any way that we can to stop the project,” said Jerry Antonacci, whose waste transfer company, Crown Container, has been in Willets Point since 1959.