Thursday, August 23, 2007

Flashback, 1999: Developers, said FCR, must be "more creative" in finding sites

An article in the January 1999 issue of the late Brooklyn Bridge magazine, headlined "King of the Deal," suggested that Forest City Ratner was not only not yet imagining Atlantic Yards, it had run out of land in Brooklyn.

Given other evidence that the developer already had its eye on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, it's safe to consider that a feint for public consumption.

The article begins:
Sandeep Mathrani used to fly over Brooklyn in a helicopter, videotaping traffic patterns and housing concentrations. As director of retail development for Forest City Ratner, he was searching for large spaces within residential neighborhoods on which to build new shopping complexes. "It's hard to drive and get a bird's-eye per­spective," says Mathrani.

The spaces winnow

And, after describing the developer's Atlantic Center mall and the emerging Atlantic Terminal mall, the article ultimately finds Mathrani almost wistful:
Mathrani no longer takes helicopter rides over the borough. In fact, his market research has led him to conclude that Brooklyn has little land suitable for further development. "There aren't any options," he says, sounding almost wistful. "Three or four years ago, it was an emerging market. Today, it is well-defined."

When Mathrani speaks about the number of stores in the suburbs versus Brooklyn, you can almost hear the sound of heartbreak in his voice. "We have 2.6 million people in Brooklyn, and four department stores," he says. "If you look at Nassau County in Long Island, which has the same population as the borough, they have twen­ty-six Staples, where I think we have five or four."

Mathrani expects the pace of retail development in the borough to slow down soon, simply because there will be no places left to build. "Developers are going to have to be a lot more creative."


The railyard beckons

At that point, clearly, the developer was not stating plans--at least not publicly--for building a platform over the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard. But that was before the price of land in Brooklyn skyrocketed and such a platform became financially feasible.

As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's Dennis Holt wrote last November, hearkening back to the 1993 groundbreaking for Atlantic Center, the developer did have its eye on the railyard, if not for retail than for a larger building:
“For the first time in a public setting, officials from Forest City Ratner Companies and their consultants revealed their plans for the Atlantic Center site.

“Forest City also revealed its desire to expand the project site to include space across Atlantic Avenue from Sixth Avenue west to Flatbush, where they hope to build an office tower over the open Long Island Railroad Tracks. These officials even talked about their vision of a new subway and rail complex.”


Plans change

The office tower became an arena and 16 towers, with retail at the base of several, and the ambitions of the plan required the developer to purchase land on the private market, convince the city government to convey streets and other properties, to win a belated bidding process for the railyard it had seemingly been promised, and, most contentiously, get the state to exercise eminent domain to assemble the 22-acre site. The latter effort is still in court.

Tellingly, the developer succeeded in leading careless journalists into describing the site as an "open railyard" (even though little more than a third of the site would be a railyard) and stating that the project would be built "on the... railyards" (rather than on and around the railyards).

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