AKRF TURNED OUT TO BE THE the perfect size: It was large enough to handle all aspects of an environmental review and yet small enough to do just, or primarily, environmental reviews. And it crafted proposals for government agencies who awarded contracts through competitive bids, emphasizing a customized approach rather than a low price.
“We think about how to approach the issue, what the elements we really have to focus on and be concerned with,” said Ms. Do, “and that is what the agencies want to see, not just, ‘Here is our résumé, this is what we’ve done in the past.’ It’s a little bit more specific to the project.”
And these reviews became bigger and bigger, as the public and policymakers demanded that E.I.S.’s cover new topics such as hazardous materials. The Atlantic Yards E.I.S., for example, takes up 995 megabytes on three discs; AKRF has earned $4.8 million from the developer on the project so far, an Empire State Development Corporation official said at a May meeting.
The developers demanded that E.I.S.’s get bigger also, since one of the favorite ways to doom a project is to attack the E.I.S. for being incomplete. AKRF says that none of its E.I.S.’s have been defeated in court.
The judge’s decision regarding Columbia’s expansion is not a statement on the merit of the E.I.S.—which is just now in draft stage, as the project will not be approved until this winter. Rather, the decision came about because businesses opposing the university sought records, under the state freedom of information law, from the ESDC, which is considering acquiring the 17-acre site in West Harlem under the state’s powers of eminent domain and then handing it over to the university.
AKRF is helping the state agency to determine whether to characterize the expansion site as blighted, which would be a precondition to acquire it under eminent domain. At the same time, the firm is conducting the environmental review for the university. Judge Shirley Werner Kornreich consequently ordered the agency to release some correspondence between AKRF and the ESDC.
“[W]hile acting for Columbia, AKRF has an interest of its own in the outcome of [ESDC’s] action, as AKRF, presumably, seeks to succeed in securing an outcome that its client, Columbia, would favor,” Judge Kornreich wrote.
The ESDC would not comment on the case nor say whether the state agency hired the firm through a competitive process because it plans to appeal the decision, said spokesman Errol Cockfield.
While the case does not name AKRF as a defendant, Norman Siegel, one of the lawyers for the businesses, said that AKRF shouldered some responsibility for serving two masters.
“I think both parties are responsible for making sure the process is open and fair and is not tainted by any possibility of conflict of interest,” he said.