Volume 18 • Issue 24 | Oct. 28 - Nov. 3, 2005

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Audience members shouted at Lower Manhattan Development Corp. officials Monday night.

L.M.D.C. pummeled at public meeting

By Ronda Kaysen

The last thing the embattled Lower Manhattan Development Corporation needed this week was a public relations snafu. But that is exactly what the agency got when it hosted an “open house” about the demolition of 130 Liberty St.

Michael Haberman, community liaison for L.M.D.C., the agency vested with the reconstruction of Lower Manhattan, was dramatically interrupted as he explained the evening’s agenda. Protestors with blue tape covering their mouths wielding yellow signs that blasted “L.M.D.C. wants to silence the Lower Manhattan community” shouted questions and accusations through Haberman’s introduction.

The Oct. 24 event at the Marriott Financial Center on West St. was intended to serve as an information session about the demolition of the former Deutsche Bank, a building at 130 Liberty St. that was badly damaged and contaminated with debris on Sept. 11.

L.M.D.C. purchased the 40-story structure more than a year ago from Deutsche Bank so it could dismantle it and expand the World Trade Center site. The Environmental Protection Agency approved the corporation’s deconstruction plan three days before the fourth anniversary of Sept. 11, bringing the protracted approval process to a close. Contractors began erecting scaffolding in September. The floor-by-floor demolition will begin in early 2006.

Critics protested the meeting not for its content so much as its format. In lieu of the traditional “open mic” format where speakers ask their questions publicly, L.M.D.C. opted for an “open table” setup where members of the public individually approach various experts and agencies seated at tables and ask their questions privately. L.M.D.C. would then publicly answer a selection of the questions.

L.M.D.C. first used this format at a 130 Liberty St. presentation last spring and chose to use it again on Monday in the hopes it might draw people who don’t attend Community Board 1 meetings on the Deutsche deconstruction.

But critics blasted the arrangement as undemocratic, saying the format would allow the agency to cherry pick questions. Last week, C.B. 1, the event’s co-sponsor, withdrew its sponsorship in protest. U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler and New York State Senator Martin Connor sent a joint letter rebuking the agency, calling the format “unacceptable and inappropriate.”

“The people who have questions are not going to have a full opportunity to ask them in a proper venue,” Linda Rosenthal, an aide to Nadler, told Downtown Express shortly before the meeting.

Many local residents worry the current deconstruction plan does not include an adequate community action plan if an emergency were to occur at the site. Several residential buildings lie within 100 feet of the shrouded tower. Others worry about the possibility of recontamination to the neighborhood and workers should some of the toxins escape the structure.

Monday night’s outburst is the latest example of escalating friction between the development corporation and the community board. C.B. 1 members hammered Haberman at a recent board meeting about the demise of the International Freedom Center, a museum planned for the new World Trade Center. The following night, the board passed two resolutions scolding L.M.D.C. for the slow pace of the redevelopment and the lack of public input in the process.

“This is a broader issue of a lack of community input. We, as a community, cannot sit idly by and let our voices not be heard,” C.B. 1 chairperson Julie Menin said in a telephone interview. “It goes to the selection of the cultural institutions, it goes to the issue of retail. The community must have a voice at the table.”

Evidence of tension between the agency and the board began this summer, after Menin was elected C.B. 1 chairperson in June. She filled a vacancy left by Madelyn Wils, who sits on the L.M.D.C. board.

Monday night’s debacle points to a larger question haunting L.M.D.C.: What, exactly, is going on in there?

Governor George Pataki removed the International Freedom Center last month before L.M.D.C. or the public could weigh in on the museum’s content. Pataki’s decision — a response to calls from some victims’ family members to limit cultural activities in the memorial quadrant — evoked the resignation of L.M.D.C. board member Roland Betts.

Betts, one of the original — and most influential — members of L.M.D.C. board and a close friend of President George W. Bush, quietly handed in his resignation letter last week. At his final L.M.D.C. board meeting, Betts told fellow board members, “There’s no question that L.M.D.C. has been deeply wounded here,” according to the New York Times.

L.M.D.C. has been hemorrhaging employees since president Kevin Rampe resigned last May. The new L.M.D.C. president, Stefan Pryor, wields far less power than Rampe because on the day Pryor was promoted, Pataki appointed his right hand man, John Cahill, as Downtown redevelopment czar, a position that reports directly to the governor.

Since the spring, many of the key staffers surrounding the 130 Liberty St. deconstruction have bowed out, including Amy Peterson, who directed the deconstruction plans, L.M.D.C. spokesperson Joanna Rose, who took a post as Pataki’s spokesperson and Kate Millea, who developed the controversial community action plan.

At Monday night’s meeting, L.M.D.C. president Pryor was nowhere to be seen, leaving Haberman and two L.M.D.C. press officers to steer the meeting, which quickly devolved into near mutiny.

“We didn’t necessarily anticipate it being a heated meeting,” L.M.D.C. spokesperson John Gallagher told Downtown Express the following day. “We thought this was really going to be an open house where people get information in a different setting.”

L.M.D.C. might not have “anticipated” the outcome, but it was aware of the criticism. Pryor “blew a gasket” when he received the critical letter from U.S. Rep. Nadler and Senator Conner, according to one source close to the conflict. Menin told Downtown Express Pryor was also angry when she told him C.B. 1 was withdrawing its support.

During the 45-minute table session, L.M.D.C. officials nervously milled about the Marriott lobby, whispering amongst themselves. City and construction officials staffing the tables stood idly by while the majority of audience members sat inside, refusing to participate in the table session and making impromptu speeches of their own at the abandoned podium.

“You might be shocked to know that the questions at the table were fewer than we expected,” a beleaguered and sarcastic Haberman told the audience at the end of the boycotted table session.

With that, L.M.D.C. acquiesced, opening the floor up to the public.

Although Pat Evangelista, W.T.C. coordinator for E.P.A., refused to answer questions directed toward him, government and construction officials answered most questions. Evangelista told Downtown Express after the meeting that he declined to answer questions because of the protest.

Many of the questions circled around E.P.A.’s September approval of L.M.D.C.’s deconstruction plan. Last summer, E.P.A. responded to L.M.D.C.’s revised plan—the original plan was summarily rejected by E.P.A. last January—with extensive written comments. By September, the agency had approved the plan, with no public paper trail in sight.

Critics wonder if the sudden Sept. 11-anniversary approval was more than a coincidence, a theory Evangelista did not reject. The two agencies decided to hammer out an agreement through a series of meetings over the summer, Evangelista told Downtown Express. “It was a result of a lot of frustration related to all of those involved in that process,” he said. “We decided that it was important to get down to business.”

In the end, the questions the public asked of L.M.D.C. differed little from those asked at most 130 Liberty St. presentations. The remaining audience members — nearly half of the audience left early on in the evening — asked questions about evacuation plans, environmental safety and dissemination of information. The meeting was ultimately “productive,” L.M.D.C.’s Gallagher told Downtown Express.

“Was this so painful?” Rosenthal asked Haberman near the end of the meeting. Haberman handed the microphone to the next audience member.


Ronda@DowntownExpress.com


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