Increasingly frustrated residents of Battery Park City appear to be on the verge of pushing for the ouster of Battery Park City Authority Chairman Dennis Mehiel, who residents say in the last two years has turned the authority into an opaque and autonomous body that cares little for input from residents.
“Residents are major stakeholders and they don’t feel they’re being treated that way,” said Anthony Notaro, a BPC resident and chair of Community Board 1’s Battery Park City Committee. “The sense is that decisions, plans and strategies - they’re completely absent from that process.”
Exhibit A is a recent decision by the authority to enter into contract with Allied Barton for “security ambassadors” to patrol the neighborhood in place of officers from Parks Enforcement Patrol, who are trained and sworn peace officers with the Parks Department and have authority to make arrests.
The feeling among residents, expressed at a Dec. 16 town hall-style meeting called by the authority, is that private security guards, for fear of liability, do not intervene in situations that threaten public safety. Remarkably, residents’ fears seemed to come to pass one day after the contract went into effect, as two teenage residents were attacked, and one seriously injured, by a group of 10-15 people while an Allied Barton security guard reportedly stood by.
One of the victim’s parents released a statement to NYC Park Advocates’ Jeffrey Croft, who first reported the Dec. 16 incident when it came to light on Jan. 7, claiming the security guard did nothing to help the victims as they were being beaten and robbed. Other reports later said the guard first called a supervisor who then called 911, which resulted in a delay from responding medical professionals.
Residents have long called for more community representation on the seven-member board, which currently has just one sitting BPC resident. It also seems like an ideal time for a shakeup on the board, as there are currently two vacancies and another member’s term is set to expire in February, according to Battery Park City Authority spokesperson Robin Forst.
Mehiel’s term expired at year’s end but, as a state official appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is likely to stay on until replaced or reappointed by Cuomo. “Chairman Mehiel serves at the pleasure of the governor,” said Forst.
Community Board 1 recently passed a resolution calling on the governor to appoint more BPC residents to the board, while local elected officials like State Senator Daniel Squadron have advocated for New York City to take control of Battery Park City, a contingency that’s available to the city.
Friction between the authority and residents goes back at least two years, according to Notaro.
“It’s a wonderful neighborhood, the authority has done over its lifespan a wonderful job developing it,” said Notaro, who has lived at BPC for almost two decades. “But over the last couple years there’s been a disconnect and a lack of communication between the authority and the community.”
Points of contention include the disposition of North Cove Marina, which was given over to mega-developer Brookfield Properties last year at the expense of a popular sailing school and yacht club that was a favorite at the marina for many years.
There’s also concern about an opaque RFP system that sometimes ushers in major changes without the community’s knowledge, as in the case of the contract with Allied Barton, and conflict over permitting procedures at the Downtown Little League ball field. Lingering dissatisfaction also remains over the sudden and fraught departure last year of BPC Parks Conservancy head Tessa Huxley, who according to news reports was forced out of the position she held for 27 years by the authority.
But in taking the community’s temperature, Notaro believes residents aren’t quite ready to give up on the authority or Mehiel.
“No one wants to scrap the whole thing, at least not yet. But the feeling now is there’s a real breakdown between the community and the authority,” said Notaro, who believes the residents will still work with Mehiel if communication improves. “I’m open to continuing to work with [the authority] until a complete impasse.”
Pat Smith, however, a BPC resident since 2002 who is active in local issues, is less forgiving. He said he thinks the relationship between Mehiel and residents is beyond repair.
“For 30 years Battery Park City has been perhaps the most successful development in New York City. It’s worked very well except for the last two years,” said Smith, who believes turning BPC over to the city would be a mistake. “A simpler solution, but a very necessary solution, is changing the leadership at the Battery Park City Authority.”
Smith said under previous authority administrations there were quarterly meetings between residents and the authority, a practice that ceased when Mehiel was appointed in 2012.
“He promised more than two years ago he would resume the meetings and he did not,” said Smith.
Forst, the spokesperson for the Battery Park City Authority, said the agency agreed to hold quarterly meetings after the Dec. 16 town hall, which was the first during Mehiel’s tenure.
“The authority is committed to open communications with the community,” said Forst. “We regularly receive input from the community by attending the monthly community board meetings, through our website and by engaging with the community for input on different subjects.”
As for the assault on Dec. 19, Forst referred comment on the apprehension of the suspects to the NYPD and largely refrained from discussing how the incident played out.
“Because Allied Barton was patrolling in the vicinity, they were the first to respond,” she said. “As they were first on the scene, they notified NYPD, EMS and [Parks Enforcement Patrol]. As to apprehending the perpetrators, the NYPD has an open investigation and we do not want to interfere with that process. Please contact the NYPD for any further comment.”
The authority declined to make Mehiel available for an interview. Officials at Allied Barton did not return a request for comment. Forst said PEP remains a valid security component at BPC.
“PEP’s presence has remained unchanged,” she said. “They are still under contract and present at their same staffing levels.”
Smith regards the Allied Barton agreement as further evidence of an agency that is out of touch with its constituents.
Security “is a crucial element in the community,” said Smith. “How you can do that without seeking some input from the community, or alerting the community that you’re considering it?”
According to news reports, authority officials said at the Dec. 16 meeting that they published notices seeking private security services in the City Record and on their website.
Smith said based on his experience as a former reporter, including during a cops and courts stint at the New York Post, private security guards create the illusion of safety.
“No matter what a private security firm will tell the public, they’re telling their employees, ‘do not risk a lawsuit, do not risk injury to yourself,’” said Smith, who declined to comment directly on the Dec. 19 assault. “I know this: that PEP officers are sworn peace officers ... they have arrest powers. They have protection as both New York City civil servants and as union members. And historically ... PEP officers have stepped in and intervened and made arrests, put themselves at risk.”
But for Smith the most pressing concern is ousting Mehiel from the helm at the authority.
“The most immediate solution right now is to bring in a new chair,” he said. “I just believe he has lost the trust of the community.”