Monday, August 23, 2010

Courting Disaster at Willets Point

Last Friday. Justice Joan Madden rejected the Article 78 petition brought by Willets Point United against the original ULURP application for the development of the Iron Triangle. City Room reported the decision: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg won a victory on Friday for his $3 billion blueprint for apartments, offices and stores in the shadow of Citi Field in Willets Point, Queens, when a judge rejected a challenge from opponents in the area.The judge, Justice Joan A. Madden of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, turned down their request for an injunction to keep the city from going ahead with the project."

 But, as WPU's lawyer Mike Gerrard pointed out: "Michael Gerrard, a lawyer for the opponents, called the decision a “two-edged sword for the city.” In a statement posted on the Web site of Willets Point United, a group that is fighting the city, he noted that in dismissing the opponents’ case, Justice Madden concluded that the environmental impact statement had adequately covered the traffic issues. “But in so doing,” he said, the decision “stressed the terrible traffic effects forecast by the environmental impact statement; the need for federal approval for the Van Wyck ramps; and the fact that if the ramps are not approved, the project cannot go forward.” “The city can’t paint one picture to the court and a completely different picture to the federal government,” he said."

So, just what exactly did the judge say-and what is the meaning of the decision for the ongoing dispute over the building of the Willets Point ramps; an acknowledged linchpin for the entire development? In rejecting the WPU petition, Judge Madden said the following: "She rejected their arguments against the environmental review, particularly as it focused on proposed new ramps from the Van Wyck Expressway. She said enough information had been provided to make possible “informed consideration and comment” on how the project would affect traffic in the area."

And we believe that, in this narrow sense, the judge is spot on-and shame on the city council for ignoring the clear and present danger that EDC's consultants underscore throughout all of the traffic sections of the EIS. Could the council members have possibly read any of this environmental review? As Judge Madden says in her decision-rejecting the WPU's argument that the EIS failed, "to state specifically that the traffic impacts cannot be mitigated;" "The traffic analysis identifies significant increases in the volume of traffic and the resulting deterioration of the levels of service (LOS) on specific sections of, and ramps to and from, the Van Wyck and the Whitestone Expressways, and on the Gran Central Parkway." (pp. 10-11)

And she goes on to say-and this should be understood by all of the local area elected officials and civic groups: "The analysis states that "on several highway ramps and sections, the high Build volume would exceed the capacity, especially during game-day peak hours and the highway network would be unable to process the projected volumes within the duration of the peak hour." The Van Wyck would be exceptionally impacted: "As to the mainline Van Wyck Expressway, during peak hours on both game and non-game days, both directions would operate "at unacceptable LOS F." (emphasis added)

How bad would the degradation of service be? Pay attention EDF and NYCLCV: "The average travel speeds would drop from 30 to 35 mph to about 3 mph for the ramp from the North bound Whitestone Expressway and from a range of 25 to 35 mph to about 1 to 3 mph from the Westbound Northern Boulevard." (pg. 12)

We call out the less than independent enviros here because of what the NYC DOH has found out about the city's air quality: "And guess what the DOH found? That's right, outer borough neighborhoods right next to highways are those that are most dangerous to your health: "Lower and midtown Manhattan, The Bronx and outer-borough neighborhoods that flank major highways have higher levels of this form of pollution. Neighborhoods with the largest crowds during the day had, on average, 22 percent higher levels of particulate matter, while areas with the heaviest traffic had an average of 15 percent more than other neighborhoods in the study, which was conducted between June and August 2009."

But we digress from the judge's decision and EDC's crowing for a reason. The Willets Point development stands as a monument to the hypocrisy of Mike Bloomberg-and his carbon footprint reduction posturing while, at the same time, he is elevating unhealthy air quality by promoting-not only Willets Point-but all of the auto dependent mega-developments in the city's outer boroughs. His motto appears to be: Manhattan congestion free-damn everyone else!

But back to the issue at hand. As Crain's points out: "The Willets Point group had focused its argument on the impact two proposed ramps would have on the Van Wyck Expressway. The ramps require state and federal approval, and the group hopes that the project still might stall as the process move forward...“It will be interesting to see how the city will now back away from its recent claims that the project wouldn't be so bad for traffic after all,” he said."

And in this, Judge Madden is WPU's ally-as her decision underscores: "Petitioners are correct that the FGEIS does not identify the impacts on the three highways in either the Mitigation chapter or the Unavoidable Significant Adverse Impact chapter; however, the severity of the traffic impacts is clearly identified and analyzed in the chapter on Traffic and Parking...The Court concludes that this analysis contains a level of detail that reflects the severity of the impacts." (pg 15)

We'll leave aside for a moment whether the EDC consultants' failure to specify in those chapters was a deliberate effort to obfuscate that dire data in the traffic section. Here's the judge's money quote on what the EIS does in fact say: "Moreover, contrary to petitioners' arguments, the analysis does not suggest that the impacts can be mitigated. While a discussion of the impacts in the chapter on Unavoidable Significant Adverse Impacts would have been consistent with the purposes of the SEQR process and would have assisted local officials in evaluating the Plan, and the public in commenting on it, the absence of such discussion does not necessary infer that impacts could be mitigated." (emphasis added)

Indeed not. But to that admonition let us add the fact that the slicksters over at AKRF actually low-balled the vehicle trips in its original traffic study. As we have pointed out-citing Brian Ketcham's work here-the consultants minimize vehicle trips by dishonestly assigning loads of new trips-almost 50%- to a mass transit system that, frankly, can't accomodate them. Who is going to step up here and call out the irresponsibility of EDC and the rest of the Bloombergistas?

As Gene Russianoff said in his letter to the mayor-focusing on both the Willets Point and Flsuhing Commons project: "Mr. Ketcham studies new development that might be completed by 2017 as reported in the Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS) for the Willets Point Development Plan and in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Flushing Commons project. He finds:“… [added] subway trips could total more than 92,000 on weekdays and bus trips more than 70,000. …the estimated auto and truck trips, more than 144,000 that might be generated by more than 90 new projects identified in the environmental impact statements referenced above.”

All of which leads to the Van Wyck ramps-and the corrupted review process that the NY Times wrote about a few weeks ago. What Judge Madden is saying, and what Mike Gerrard is referring to when he talks about the "double edged sword," is that EDC is up against it in any honest and open review process. Added to this double edged sword-a sword of Damocles in our view-is the fact that EDC and its Swift Lazar consultants tried to put one over on NYSDOT by altering the severe data points that this original EIS had dramatized-and did so by claiming that the original diverting ramp traffic (estimated at 46% of the Willets Point traffic) would only be 16%. The consultants knew that allowing the original numbers to stand would have aborted this baby in the first tri-mester.

Which gets us to the relationship between the ramps and the overall project: "At oral argument, counsel for respondents {that would be the city} stated that if the ramps are not approved, the respondents cannot 'proceed with the plan as conceived and approved.'" And if they can't? "For the purposes of this review, this court assumes that if the ramps are not approved, additional review under SEQR will be required." (emphasis added)

So, what this decision means is that Judge Madden feels that the original EIS demonstrates the severe traffic impacts of the Willets Point project-and she states that it is not the court's purview to question why the city council chose to ignore the handwriting on the wall. But, now that the cat's out of the bag, anyone who ignores this devastating traffic impact is being malfeasant-and where this puts the EDC three card monte game is any one's guess.

But the judge's ruling doesn't take away from the centrality of the ramp review process-it does in fact add to its significance. And if her highlights of just how severe the Willets Point traffic impact will be is seen as a victory by EDC, it may just turn out to be a Pyrrhic one when the final reviews are in.