Ladies and gentlemen, we have an ombudsman!
Two hundred and three days after promising to appoint someone to oversee demolition and construction work at the Atlantic Yards project — and after three other people reportedly turned down the job — state officials have finally hired their long-awaited watchdog.
And the man for the $105,000-a-year job is none other than Forrest Taylor, former chief of staff to once-time City Council speaker Gifford Miller, a former spokesman for Mayor Giuliani, and a former deputy executive director for operations for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
“I look forward to working with all stakeholders to insure the community has access to current information and swift responses to questions and concerns,” he said in a statement.
The Empire State Development Corporation announced that it would create the ombudsman position on May 7, two weeks after thousands of tons of bricks and debris rained down onto Pacific Street from the historic Ward Bakery, which was undergoing initial demolition by contractors hired by Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner.
At the time, the agency said it needed an ombudsman “to increase oversight and improve the flow of information [and] ensure that residents remain in the loop, and that community concerns receive proper attention.”
Yet that loop was never closed and those concerns did not receive proper attention, as at least three people turned down the job, the Daily News reported in October.
Despite not being the agency’s first choice for the job, Taylor was praised by those who know him.
“He’s highly professional and has a long experience in government, so that bodes well,” said Councilman David Yassky (D–Brooklyn Heights).
But Yassky, like some Atlantic Yards opponents, said he would wait to see results before allowing ESDC to declare victory.
“It’s good that we have someone who can answer questions about the site and be responsible when problems arise,” Yassky said, “but I still don’t even have a detailed construction schedule. And ESDC still needs to do more on traffic mitigation, environmental mitigation, and the necessary public infrastructure such as schools, public safety, etc.”
Anti-Yards activists — who have said the extra level of bureaucratic oversight was necessary because Atlantic Yards received little public scrutiny before it was approved by the ESDC last year — also said they have a long list of questions.
“We look forward to meeting with him so that now the community can get answers to all of those questions,” said Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.
Foremost among those questions, Goldstein said, was whether the basketball arena that is slated to rise near the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues will require the closing of those busy streets. In Newark, where a similar glass-walled arena sits 25 feet from the curb, police officials decided at the last minute that several streets would have to be closed on game nights to provide an ample security perimeter.
Other issues remain in the Atlantic Yards footprint. Demolition work continues with little state oversight, critics said.
Last month, bricks fell from a building at 540 Vanderbilt Ave., an occupied rental building that is surrounded by buildings that are being torn down.
No one was hurt, but the residents had to be hastily relocated.
Taylor assumed his post on Monday, though the ESDC statement said he does not have an office yet.
He will be best in a “to-be-established office in the Atlantic Yards project area, providing easy access for local officials and community members,” the agency said.
As ombudsman, Taylor, 46, “will oversee the project schedule and activities and meet with elected officials and community groups to brief them on process, activities and timetables,” the ESDC press release said. “[He] will also be tasked with relaying and working through public concerns with the proper administrative agencies.”
Taylor’s appointment brings to rest the spinning “Ombudsman Clock” on the anti-Yards Web site, No Land Grab. The clock is now frozen at 203 days, 8 hours, 38 minutes and 28 seconds.
“At No Land Grab, we never imagined that it would take the ESDC 203 days to retire the count-up clock,” said the Web site’s publisher, Lumi Rolley. “Like most things Atlantic Yards, reality strains credulity.”
Until the Brooklyn office is open, members of the public can contact their ombudsman at (212) 803-3123 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.