Thursday, June 14, 2007

"Stop Payment": Groups say city's $100M shouldn't buy Ratner land

Maybe it was a little quixotic, since the City Council and Mayor Mike Bloomberg had come to a budget agreement on Monday, but a somewhat unusual coalition of Brooklyn community groups gathered yesterday to protest the apparent allocation of $100 million of city funds to buy land for the Atlantic Yards project.
(Photo by Shane Miller)

"'Stop Payment' for private property acquisition," read the oversized checks displayed at the press conference outside City Hall, organized by the BrooklynSpeaks coalition, which has called for significant changes in Atlantic Yards but has avoided litigation opposing the project. Likely because of the budget agreement, City Council Members Letitia James and David Yassky, who have criticized the city's allocation decision, were not present at the press conference.

The $100 million is part of $205 million in city support for Atlantic Yards, which is $105 million more than contemplated in a February 2005 nonbinding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). While $105 million will go to infrastructure, the $100 million apparently has no strings attached, though officials of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) have said that it will be used to acquire land.

Better spending

The city money, protesters said, should go to mitigating the impacts of the oversize project on city services, as well as for infrastructure. Moreover, they said, it should not be delivered until a governance structure is established that incorporates public input. BrooklynSpeaks has called for such a structure since it was launched last September.

"We're calling on the mayor to ensure accountability and transparency," said Michelle de la Uz of the Fifth Avenue Committee (above), representing BrooklynSpeaks. Even though the budget passed, the groups said, the city could still redirect the funds and push for more project oversight.

Broad coalition

Also appearing at the press conference were representatives of two groups that have not formally allied with BrooklynSpeaks in the past, an indication of rapprochement in both directions, at least on certain issues.

The Council of Brooklyn Neighborhoods (CBN) is officially neutral on Atlantic Yards but organized the most thorough criticism of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and has joined a lawsuit challenging the environmental review.

"Land acquisition should be the sole responsibility of the private developer," said CBN's Jim Vogel, who noted that CBN identified several issues needing mitigation, including traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, and an overloaded public transit system.

Also speaking was Daniel Goldstein of Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, which has spearheaded lawsuits challenging the project. After detailing the various government benefits accruing to Forest City Ratner, he noted that $100 million represents the developer's cash payment to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the Vanderbilt Yard. In other words, if money's fungible, taxpayers could be said to be paying for that valuable site.

Unlike the other speakers, Goldstein carefully used the conditional--"if it's built"--regarding the project's prospects.

Where the money goes

According to p. 5 of the MOU, "the City's capital contribution may also be used to fund a portion of the costs of acquisition of the Arena Site (other than the MTA Properties)." However, that entire contribution was supposed to be $100 million, suggesting that some smaller segment would go to buy land. "We don't believe any money should go to land acquisition," de la Uz said.

While Forest City Ratner has already acquired some 85 percent of the project land through negotiated sales, the rest must be acquired through such sales, or via the exercise of eminent domain.

The EDC has said that the city funding will not be used for eminent domain but through future negotiated sales. Given that eminent domain purchases are at fair market value, it's not unlikely that such negotiated sales--efforts to avoid eminent domain--would be at a somewhat higher cost.

Hearing exchange

The May 8 hearing of the City Council Committee on Finance/Economic Development included this exchange between Council Member James and NYC EDC's Seth Pinsky:

COUNCIL MEMBER JAMES: The other $100 million, which is unspecified and is basically one big pot; what is that $100 million for? Does anyone have any idea?

MR. PINSKY: The $100 million will be exclusively for acquisition of land, to reimburse or pay for new acquisition of land for the project. None of it will go towards condemnation.

COUNCIL MEMBER JAMES: So this acquisition of properties that's located within a footprint which will be the subject of eminent domain, yes?

MR. PINSKY: The money, the $100 million will not go to any property that's the subject of eminent domain.

COUNCIL MEMBER JAMES: So, these are properties that you will acquire as a result of private negotiation?

MR. PINSKY: Correct.

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