The practice of advising both sides of a transaction—the developer and the regulator—is not on trial, here, however. AKRF officials, while refusing to comment on the particulars of the Columbia case, disputed the idea that their findings would be skewed to favor a developer who was paying them.
“When we work for a developer, we are actually working really more for the lead agency,” Ms. Allee said. “When they declare an environmental impact statement to be complete, it’s theirs. They have to agree with everything that’s in it and they have to be satisfied that the work has been done properly. They don’t say, ‘Oh, great. This looks good. We are going to weight it on our scale.’”
OPPONENTS OF CERTAIN PROJECTS, however, see environmental consulting firms as the weak link in the development process, exactly because they act as the ultimate arbiter of just how much a project will damage or help a neighborhood—and perhaps because an E.I.S. is full of arcane findings that only a specialist could decipher.
In May, Ms. Do was grilled by City Council members who wanted to preserve houses along Duffield Street in central Brooklyn because they might have been stops along the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. And yet, for that study, AKRF had shown its report to 12 historians and preservationists, eight of whom agreed that research had not uncovered evidence of any Underground Railroad activity. A ninth peer reviewer did not directly address AKRF’s conclusion, while three others questioned the research methods or interpretations but did not offer alternative evidence to dispute the report’s findings.
“People see a project coming along and they like it or they don’t like it,” Ms. Allee said. “The E.I.S. is the only document that sort of chronicles the project itself. It looks like a planning document. It looks like a legal brief, and if it doesn’t say what they have thought about this situation, then they get mad. But there is a public process that this goes along.”
Ironically, just as opponents have come to target the role of environmental consultants like AKRF, they’re also enhancing the consultants’ bottom line. The city Economic Development Corporation paid AKRF for the E.I.S. for the 2004 downtown Brooklyn rezoning, and then also retained the firm to conduct the additional study in response to concerns about tearing down the Duffield Street houses.
Likewise, each new concern that critics think of as a means to somehow shoot down a project—security against terrorism is a big one now—could end up as an additional chapter in the E.I.S., making it longer and bringing more money to firms like AKRF.
So, despite calls to simplify the environmental review process, AKRF does not expect it to happen anytime soon.
“There is this fairly constant tension between wanting to provide a full level of disclosure that addresses public concerns and that addresses potential litigation and scaling it back to something that seems more readable and less technical,” said AKRF president and chief executive Ed Applebome. “It has been this way. People complain that they are too big and too confusing and then people ask you to add another 10 analyses. So I think that dynamic will continue. It just seems inevitable.”