In 1981, four engineers and planners broke off from mega-contractor Parsons Brinckherhoff to form their own company to focus on the burgeoning field of environmental impact statements. At the time, it was hard to say just what would happen to the firm, named Allee King Rosen & Fleming, after the principals’ last names.
But it turned out that the four had hit upon a remunerative niche that would grow over time both as the city’s fortunes rebounded and as environmental concerns mounted. Thousands of environmental reviews later, AKRF now employs a staff of 240 in five locations along the Eastern Seaboard and evaluates, by its own estimates, the majority of public projects in New York City and a number of the private ones as well.
Yankee Stadium, Downtown Brooklyn, the reconstruction of the World Trade Center: The names of the projects and the developers all change, but AKRF as the lead preparer remains the same. According to Hoover’s, a business information Web site, the firm takes in revenues of $30 million annually.
AKRF has become so ubiquitous that this low-key firm, headquartered on Park Avenue South, is no longer as invisible as it would like to be. In May, a handful of City Council members attacked the firm at a public session when it failed to find evidence that a downtown Brooklyn street was once on the Underground Railroad. In June, a state judge suggested that AKRF had a conflict of interest because it was working simultaneously for both Columbia University and the state agency overseeing the school’s expansion into West Harlem.
In a first of its kind interview about the firm, three principals from AKRF told The Observer that its success stemmed from its ability to work hard, on demanding deadlines, and to always prevail in court.
“They count on us to do the big ones. They see us as having the expertise and being reliable,” said co-founder Debra Allee, the “A” of AKRF. “Someone who had been our client in the past and is not in government anymore said that we were the people who, if you had a problem on Christmas Eve, we were here and we would take care of it. Or if you called at 6 o’clock on a Friday in the summer, you would find someone here.”
As it happened, The Observer interview took place on a Friday in the summer, and the two floors of AKRF’s headquarters seemed oddly quiet and about two-thirds empty. Linh Do, a senior vice president, said that most employees were out in the field, and that the place would come alive if a deadline was drawing near.
What’s more, a telephone call later in the day to one of AKRF’s competitors led to a voice mail recording announcing that the firm was closed as a rule on summer Fridays.
And one could easily see, based on AKRF’s sizable production room—where they can print and bind the Tolstoyan documents that are their lives’ work—how much their clients would value the ability to turn around, in just a few weeks or months, a new version of an environmental impact statement, with a new section added or recalibrated to adjust to a scaled-down project.
AKRF’s first job, some 26 years ago, was a piece of the study for the 42nd Street redevelopment project that the team subcontracted from its former employer, Parsons Brinckherhoff. (Ms. Allee was a member of the board of directors of Parsons Brinckerhoff at the time.) Other early jobs were won, Ms. Allee said, in part by the fact that co-founder Jim King, an African-American, owned more than 50 percent of the company, therefore qualifying it as minority-owned.
But ownership soon became diffuse: Ms. Allee said part of the firm’s success stems from its ability to retain staff by offering them shares in the company. Now AKRF, run as a corporation, is owned by 32 senior employees.
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.
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.”