BBPark advisor denies cronyism charges over divisive ‘Fieldhouse’

July 31, 2012 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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A former member of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Community Advisory Council insists that she did not exploit her position to steer a controversial $40-million cycling racetrack to the waterfront development, but some of the council’s roughly two dozen members are considering tweaking the group’s by-laws.

Critics charge that the velodrome project — a 200-meter banked indoor track which supporters call by a more generic moniker, New York City Fieldhouse — is a stadium for a marginal sport masquerading as a community recreation center. They fear its bulk will overwhelm Brooklyn Bridge Park and cause traffic problems on nearby Brooklyn Heights streets.

“Painting stripes on a horse doesn’t make it a zebra,” Peter Flemming, co-chair of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Community Council told the Brooklyn Eagle last week.

Competitive cycling enthusiast Joshua Rechnitz offered to donate the funds to build the facility on the inland area adjacent to Pier 5. Supporters say that in addition to the track, the building would house bathrooms and park storage. The infield could be set up with removable equipment so local schools can play volleyball, basketball and other sports, they say.

The Community Advisory Council member under fire, Kate Collignon, as been accused of conflict of interest by several council members, as first reported in the Brooklyn Paper. She is a resident of Prospect Heights and a principal at HR&A Advisors, a consulting firm working for the velodrome’s backers.

The Brooklyn Paper reported that Collignon was added to the advisory council in 2010, a year after she began working for HR&A. She stepped down from the council two months ago — only to reappear representing Fieldhouse before the council.

Supporters say the furor is much ado about nothing, since Collignon was initially asked to join the council in 2009, before she even worked for HR&A.  Further, the Fieldhouse proposal has not yet been voted on by the council, and Collignon resigned from the council “at the beginning of the process.”

Collignon told the Brooklyn Eagle on Monday via email, “The CAC never discussed or voted on the Fieldhouse during my tenure, and the unsubstantiated assertions that my ‘votes and contributions to community discussions helped pave the way for the project’ are patently false.”

Regina Myer, president of Brooklyn Bridge Park, backs Collignon.

“The New York City Fieldhouse has put forth a significant effort to present plans and garner feedback on the proposed field house at Brooklyn Bridge Park,” Myer told the Brooklyn Eagle on Monday. “The proposal has proceeded on its own merits and has not been voted on by any members of the Community Advisory Council. Specifically, former CAC member Kate Collignon resigned at the beginning of the process so as not to pose a conflict of interest.

“Any suggestion that she exercised influence on the CAC or Brooklyn Bridge Park regarding the proposed field house is completely inaccurate.”

The lines of influence in Collignon’s case appear especially entangled because HR&A itself — her current employer — is a major strategic advisor to Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation. In addition, Collignon previously worked with the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC), where she served as senior VP in charge of large-scale planning and development initiatives including Downtown Brooklyn and Brooklyn Bridge Park.

In December of 2010 Collignon testified for the EDC at a meeting considering alternatives to housing as revenue generators in Brooklyn Bridge Park. She spoke in favor of housing —the funding source favored by EDC and by Myer — saying that an indoor recreation space is “not only not going to be revenue-generator, it’s probably not going to be self-staining, which has generally been the case for the vast majority of indoor recreation spaces. If a not-for-profit facility like the Y breaks even people are very, very happy about that.”

Whether they suspect hanky-panky or not, some council members say that the time is ripe to re-evaluate conflict-of-interest policy on the 27-member (and growing) advisory council. The council includes representative of local community groups, including Community Board 2, the Boerum Hill Association and the Brooklyn Heights Association, along with such “at large” members as Collignon, “who represent a wide variety of local interests and concerns,” according to the council.

“I’m not intimately familiar with the by-laws of the CAC and perhaps conflict of interest is not specifically addressed,” said Jane Carroll McGroarty, president of the Brooklyn Heights Association and a CAC member. “When Kate suddenly resigned and all of a sudden was representing someone coming before the CAC with a project … In a perfect world she would have resigned when the client approached her. Whether that rises to a strict violation of the by-laws, it certainly gave an appearance of that, unfortunately.”

McGroarty said that Collignon is “nice, a good member of the CAC, and I’m sad to lose her. But there is that sense of not wearing two hats.

“The positive part is that it’s been a little wake-up call that maybe we do need a little oversight in terms of conflict of interest. I don’t know if any harm was done. Obviously [the velodrome] was a well-kept secret until the day it was announced, but I don’t think Kate got any insider’s information.”

At least one person privy to the group’s workings, who asked not to be named, says Collignon’s presence on the council should have raised eyebrows, considering her background at the EDC and at HR&A.

“When they appointed her it was surprising, personally. She flew under the radar somehow,” he said, adding, “There’s a big revolving door between certain private firms and the Mayor’s Office. Clearly the Mayor’s Office wanted her as a ringer. She doesn’t live anywhere near the park.”

Still, he added, “I don’t see how she had any influence on the project. How much influence does the CAC have anyway? Some people make a lot out of a lot of things.”

One of Collignon’s supporters, also requesting anonymity, scoffed at the idea that Collignon benefited financially from siting the velodrome in Brooklyn Bridge Park as opposed to any number of other locations under consideration.

“The only one benefiting — other than construction firms, eventually — is Brooklyn Bridge Park,” she said. “Joshua Rechnitz is donating $50 million [to build the velodrome]. She gets no financial benefit.”

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