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The Croton Follies. A Report on the Village Board Meeting of September 4, 2007

September 17, 2007

Crotonblog has long intended our reports on bi-monthly village board meetings to be satirical in tone. Any work in which human folly or vice is attacked through irony, derision or caustic wit can be considered satire. But satire can also use irony or sarcasm to expose official folly, stupidity or venality.

The September 4th meeting’s agenda featured a series of resolutions. The fourth resolution caught our attention because the village’s agenda described it as “authorizing the grant application to the Greentree Conservancy for a grant to receive $5,000 matching funds for the Kaplan’s Pond Train Construction and extension.” We decided that a train at Kaplan’s Pond costing only $5,000 would have to be a toy or miniature train. Alas, the discovery that the word “train” was a typo came as a disappointment. The intended word was “trail.”

The fifth resolution next caught our attention. It authorized the Village Manager “to sign the proposal from AKRF for a Phase One Site Assessment Update and a Phase II Subsurface Investigation at 1A Croton Point Avenue.” The form proposed by AKRF opens with the phrase, “Whereas, the Village is considering acquiring the property at 1A Croton Point Avenue etc.” This caused Crotonblog to raise its collective eyebrows. Rumors have been circulating widely in the village to the effect that the village is either preparing to exercise its right to resort to eminent domain to appropriate this private property or is in negotiations with the present owners, Greentree Realty. From discreet inquiries, Crotonblog has not been able to discover the village’s intentions. Mum’s the word about what the village is up to.

Two such disparate courses of action raise serious questions. Suddenly the subject of our report ceases to be funny and susceptible to satirizing. If the course of action is to be eminent domain, Croton taxpayers should be told what costs will be incurred, particularly legal fees, and how long the process will take. If negotiations for purchase are under way with the present owners, taxpayers should be told how much money in costs and lawyer’s fees is involved.

But, should the latter be the action taken, think of the money that could have been saved over the years had the village been wise enough to resort to negotiation and purchase initially! No matter what action is eventually taken, the big question for Croton taxpayers is this: Why are we being kept in the dark, and why are matters relating to 1A Croton Point Avenue now being conducted behind a shroud of secrecy? Mr. Mayor, whatever happened to your boast of an open government?

Then there’s another inevitable question: What’s the rationale for and the propriety of letting a contractor write the terms of a study on behalf of the village. Shouldn’t the village decide what it wants from a contractor instead of the other way around? No part of this proposal was put out for competitive bidding, which may explain why the contractor agreed to perform the work at a total estimated cost of $28,700. But the village set aside $50,000 to cover the cost. This indicates that the village anticipates, and has prepared for, contractor’s cost overruns of up to $21,300, or almost 75 percent. Crotonblog will be interested to learn what the actual cost will be when AKRF’s final bill comes in.

Where the hell is Croton’s self-appointed fiscal watchdog Bob Wintermeier when we need him?

Before trustees unanimously approved this resolution, the village attorney and trustees all performed a seated Kabuki dance for the camera. Its purpose seemed to be to convince watchers that what they were about to do was something Martha Stewart would call “a good thing.” The forced bonhomie left Crotonblog unconvinced—make that read worried—that underneath the hard sell something was rotten in Denmark, and it wasn’t just a slab of Danish Havarti cheese forgotten in a cupboard somewhere.

One reason for our concern is that the contractor with the unpronounceable acronymic name AKRF has a bad odor, according to some who have bumped up against it. The company’s headquarters occupy the seventh floor of an office building at 440 Park Avenue South in New York City. (Park Avenue South used to be called Fourth Avenue, but this sounded so unchic the name was changed to make it seem almost as classy as its extension to the north, Park Avenue, also once called Fourth Avenue.)

AKRF also has what it calls its “Hudson Valley office” at 34 South Broadway in White Plains, where it occupies Suite 314. Geographic purists might point out that it should more properly be called the Harlem Valley office. The old New York Central’s Harlem Division was called that because it ran north through Putnam and Dutchess counties in the Harlem Valley that borders the Taconic Range. AKRF also maintains offices on Long Island, New Jersey, and in Maryland, serving the Baltimore-Washington area.

The firm’s history began in 1981 when four planners working for the huge Parsons Brinckerhoff contracting firm decided to form their own company to mine the lucrative lode offered by New York City’s economic revival and the associated environmental concerns that demanded in-depth studies. They called the firm Allee King Rosen & Fleming from the principals’ last names. No small part of its early success was that one of the founders, James King, was African-American and owned more than 50 percent of the company. This qualified AKRF, the acronym by which it became knows, as minority-owned and gave it a leg up in preferential bidding.

Its first job in 1981 was a small portion of the big study for the 42nd Street Redevelopment Project, which the new firm’s principals sub-contracted from their former employer, Parsons Brinckerhoff. Thanks to a steady stream of redevelopment projects in revitalized New York City, the firm has grown quickly. Hoover’s, an Internet web site specializing in business information, says the firm’s income is $30 million annually. Its name soon became associated with a host of big projects ranging from Yankee Stadiums to the reconstruction f the World Trade center. On the latter project AKRF steadfastly maintained that no evidence remained of previous occupation of the site by the Hudson Terminal Buildings and the underground Hudson Tubes. Independent industrial archaeologists showed AKRF’s claim to be wrong.

Other jobs have included its work for Forest City Ratner followed almost immediately working for the Empire State Development Corporation on the Atlantic Yards project, raising questions of conflict of interest. According to the respected Manhattan Institute, AKRF wrote the City Environmental Quality Review Technical Manual, which suggests that there is a revolving door between government agencies and the firm. Lobbyist Richard Lipsky has called AKRF “accommodating consultants” who are “trained in the abject aping of its master’s whims.”

The firm really got its teat caught in a wringer in a confrontation between Columbia University and business interests in the former Manhattan neighborhood of Manhattanville, now called West Harlem, which lies in the swale between Columbia University on the south and the City College on the north. In what may become a watershed decision, New York Supreme Court Justice Shirley Werner Kornreich ordered the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) to release 117 documents that agency had sought to keep secret from opponents of Columbia University’s plan to expand its campus west of Twelfth Avenue as far north as 133rd Street. Her ruling rejected ESDC’s argument that the documents sought were exempt from the Freedom of Information Law because they are inter-agency materials that don’t represent final policy determinations. She questioned AKRF’s objectivity, since both the State and Columbia University have retained the firm.

The paradox comes because Columbia University employed AKRF to give the environmental impact of its expansion plan a favorable stamp of approval while at the very same time it was working for the ESDC to determine whether the area in question is blighted and thus eligible to be appropriated by eminent domain. Justice Kornreich opined that the firm is not a neutral party because “AKRF has an interest of its own in the outcome of respondent’s action [the blight study], as AKRF, presumably, seeks to succeed in securing an outcome that its client, Columbia, would favor.”

The State had argued that AKRF could remain objective despite its work for Columbia University because there existed a “Chinese wall” separating those parts of the firm working for Columbia and those working for ESDC. Justice Kornreich shot down that argument, writing that “the Chinese wall exception that respondent would like the court to recognize is not sanctioned by any judicial precedent, and it does not eliminate AKRF’s representation of potentially rival interests.”

Norman Siegel, an attorney for the business owners threatened by eminent domain, made this observation: “The judge recognized that you can’t serve two masters. The people that the government’s using for the blight study are consultants for Columbia. How is that fair?” According to Mr. Siegel, the ruling allows the business owners “to remove in part the veil of secrecy from the legal process that could radically change their lives,” and added, “It also raises the larger issue of whether the process to date has been tainted.”

Earlier this year, AKRF found itself embroiled in another “hot potato” controversy after having undertaken a two-and a half-year project involving detailed historical study and analysis in connection with a huge redevelopment project in downtown Brooklyn. It yielded a massive 700-page document, impressive if only for its bulk. Voluminous size is a quality for which AKRF reports are noted.

In the period leading up to the Civil War, Brooklyn was a hotbed of abolitionists. A central abolitionist figure was the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who thundered against slavery from his pulpit in the historic Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights and regularly staged attention-getting event such as auctioning “slaves” to buyers who would grant them their freedom. Targeted for demolition was a group of row houses on Duffield Street to make way for parking facilities. Oral tradition and other evidence had identified these houses as among the “stations” on the Underground Railroad that enable escaped slaves to make their way to Canada and freedom.

AKRF could not have stirred up a more angry response had it taken a stick to a hive of bees. A hearing before the New York City Council Landmarks Subcommittee in May started off badly and went downhill from there. Council member John Liu, no friend of historical preservation, wanted to know why AKRF’s name was omitted from the report shown in a PowerPoint presentation by AKRF vice-president Linh Do. (It was an error, AKRF claimed.) When asked by more than one council member if they had hired any archaeologists, the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) responded that they had hired an architectural historian.

The EDC defended its actions by stating preposterously that they did not hire archaeologists to examine the site because that would have required demolishing the buildings under study. Archaeologists do more than mere ditch digging. Anyway, the EDC position was a curious position to take since 229 Duffield Street happens to be an empty lot and would make a prime target for subsurface archaeological investigation. Peer review of AKRF’s work at the meeting was that “the AKRF researchers displayed a remarkable ignorance,” and chided the firm for having “no research plan and no basic methodology.” Unfortunately, the AKRF and the EDC representatives left the meeting immediately after their presentation, and did not stay to hear critics of the project or the peer review. Croton has indeed gotten into bed with some unusual bedfellows.

The 10-acre parcel known as 1A Croton Point Avenue is largely fill with little likelihood now of yielding evidence of Amerindian or Colonial occupation. Nevertheless, Crotonblog will be awaiting the results of the environmental impact study and the subsurface examination of the site. With this crowd that likes working both sides of the street, who knows what will turn up?

Editor’s reminder: The board meeting tonight, September 17, 2007, starts at 8:00 p.m. in the Stanley H. Kellerhouse Municipal Building.



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