Monday, February 23, 2009

Missing from Chuck Ratner's Atlantic Yards claim: blight--and hoops

On February 13, after Gramercy Capital Corporation offered Forest City Ratner a crucial extension on a loan, Chuck Ratner, CEO of parent Forest City Enterprises told the New York Times, “This is a key step in our strategy of proactively managing our debt maturities. By working closely with Gramercy to secure this extension, we have put Atlantic Yards in a position to achieve the vision of economic revitalization, job creation and affordable housing for the future of Brooklyn.”
(Emphasis added)

What's missing from that statement?

First, the original Forest City Ratner slogan of "Jobs, Housing, and Hoops," one which by 2006 had already begun to downplay basketball for an emphasis on affordable housing. Now, the twin promises of economic revitalization" and "job creation" seem calibrated to the current zeitgeist.

Second, the primary (but not exclusive) official government goal of the Atlantic Yards project: blight removal.

FCR on blight

Though Forest City Ratner has never emphasized an intention to remove blight--that's the goal of the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC)--it surely has been on the mind of the developer.

Former AY point man Jim Stuckey, said, according to an 11/3/05 episode of the Newshour, "There might be a need for eminent domain; there might be a need for condemnation... I think the state will make its decision, unlike [the] ‘Kelo’ [case in New London, CT] based on whether or not they believe this is a blighted area."

In federal court 2/7/07, FCR attorney Jeffrey Braun asserted, “I don’t think the fact that, you know, Forest City Ratner allegedly initiated this has any relevance. I mean, frankly, this is not the crossroads of the world, Times Square, where many developers would like to have an opportunity to build. I mean, this an extremely derelict stretch—no, we’re talking about the Vanderbilt Yards—which is an open trench that’s what we’re talking about.”

However, a month later, Chuck Ratner called the Atlantic Yards site “a great piece of real estate.” That doesn't sound much like blight.

But a lot of people (including some judges) looking at Atlantic Yards don't really believe the site is blighted. The issue is important, because blight claims are key to the eminent domain case being heard today.

The GPP on blight

The Atlantic Yards General Project Plan (GPP), issued by the ESDC, asserts that blight is the fundamental problem (all emphases below are added):
The principal goal of the Atlantic Yards Land Use Improvement and Civic Project is to transform an area that is blighted and underutilized into a vibrant, mixed-use, mixed-income community that capitalizes on the tremendous mass transit service available at this unique location. In addition to eliminating the blighting influence of the below-grade Yard and the blighted conditions of the area, the Project aims, through this comprehensive and cohesive plan, to provide for the following public uses and purposes:
[List below is truncated]
• a publicly owned state-of-the-art arena
• thousands of critically needed rental housing units
• first-class office space and possibly a hotel
• publicly accessible open space
• new ground level retail spaces
• community facility spaces
• a state-of-the-art rail storage, cleaning and inspection facility
• a subway connection on the south side of Atlantic Avenue
• sustainability and green design
• environmental remediation

Land Use Improvement Project
The ESDC had to find that Atlantic Yards qualifies as a Land Use Improvement Project, which also depends on blight.

The official text:
That the area in which the Project is to be located is a substandard or insanitary area, or is in danger of becoming a substandard or insanitary area and tends to impair or arrest the sound growth and development of the municipality.

Is it believable?

St. John's University law professor Philip Weinberg doesn't buy it, according to testimony at an 11/4/05 Assembly hearing on reforming eminent domain laws.

“I think eliminating blight such as was done in Times Square by the City of New York was commendable because there the blight really amounted to the danger of crime where people simply didn’t want to go to Times Square,” testified Weinberg, who practiced for twenty years in the New York State Attorney General's Office and was Assistant Attorney General in Charge of the Environmental Protection Bureau.

“That’s very different from going into the middle of Brooklyn and using eminent domain to build a sports stadium and some high rise buildings which will mostly be market rate housing and the rest," he said. "To me it’s easy to differentiate. There’s always a problem in the middle, sure. But it’s easy to differentiate between those two situations.”

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