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In court, former Yonkers Council Member explains why she resisted Forest City's plan: "I truly believe that Ridge Hill had been given a sweetheart deal"

As discussed yesterday in federal court, Forest City Ratner's Ridge Hill project in Yonkers evoked thoughts of the developer's Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, since both developments rely on special approvals and negotiated subsidies/payments.

On trial is former Yonkers Council Member Sandy Annabi, accused of taking bribes from her distant cousin, former Yonkers Republican Party Chairman Zehy Jereis, to approve two projects, Longfellow and Ridge Hill.

Anthony Mangone, the go-between who admitted paying Jereis for Longfellow, has already pleaded guilty, while no one else regarding Ridge Hill has been charged, though Forest City gave Jereis a no-show job.

Jereis's defense is that his regular payments to Annabi resulted from infatuation, while Annabi's defense is that changes in the projects prompted her to revise her stance.

Changes legit?

An additional $10 million pledge by Forest City, on a project that could cost nearly $700 million, was under scrutiny yesterday.

Was it, as Annabi contends, significant enough to sway her vote and the best deal available, or was it a drop in the bucket? “It was essentially meaningless,” former Council Member John Murtagh said, according to the Journal News.

Former Yonkers Council Member Dee Barbato spoke similarly, using a term common in the Atlantic Yards debate: "I truly believe that Ridge Hill had been given a sweetheart deal."

With Annabi, the two Council Members represented the opposition to the project, and Forest City had to get at least one of them to change their vote.

(The trial continues at 9:30 am with former Council Member Dennis Robertson, who is expected to testify that a Forest City lobbyist told him that Jereis would ensure Annabi's vote if he got a consulting contract. Former Forest City Ratner officials Bruce Bender and Scott Cantone may testify at some point reasonably soon. In the courtroom yesterday afternoon, when I attended, was Forest City's designated lurker.)

Paying the fair share

For the size of the project, at some 80 acres, "the developer really should have and could have paid the appropriate fair share of property taxes," declared Barbato, who represents the district that includes the project.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Halperin asked her to ballpark a figure. The Cross County Shopping Center, Barbato said, was about one-third the size of Ridge Hill and pays $3 million or so in PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes).

Forest City's property tax pledge, $1.2 million, "was just not sufficient," Barbato said. Based on the Cross County example, Forest City should be paying $9 to $10 million a year--over 30 years.

The $10 million offered by Forest City that seemingly swayed Annabi, she said, "was a one shot."

"Were you opposed to Ridge Hill under any circumstances?" Halperin asked.

"I thought it was a good project," replied the earthy Barbato. But she said she sought better traffic mitigation and more tax revenues.

In the dark

Neither she nor Murtagh, as noted by the Journal News, knew that Annabi was receiving money from Jereis, nor that Jereis was going to get a job with Forest City:
“If someone is influencing (a council member) in some way, it’s something I’d want to know as a councilman and something the public has a right to know,” Murtagh said.
Still, Annabi's lawyer, William Aronwald got Murtagh to acknowledge that he didn't know that Annabi received money to switch her votes.

And Barbato was surprised at Annabi's change of heart, given that her colleague had once promised not to support Ridge Hill until Barbato was comfortable with it, the newspaper reported.

Under questioning from Halperin, who apparently wanted to make sure Barbato wasn't seen as gaining revenge on Annabi, Barbato insisted that she had no animosity toward her former colleague: “I’ve always been fond of Sandy and I’m still fond of Sandy.”

Measuring the gains

"Ridge Hill did bring substantial additional revenue to the city of Yonkers," asked Aronwald, trying to steer Barbato to Annabi's stated reasoning.

Barbato concurred.

"For example, isn't it true there were thousands of construction jobs?" Aronwald asked.

Federal Judge Colleen McMahon sustained an objection, so we didn't get to hear a disquisition on temporary versus permanent jobs, a common issue with Atlantic Yards.

Aronwald asked if sales taxes increased.

Barbato agreed, but said they were shared with the county and state.

"I go back to the problem" previously identified, Barbato continued. Ridge Hill, at 81 acres, would be "a city within a city," with enormous potential, she said. "And we were getting $1.2 million."

Ridge Hill and the MTA

Aronwald probed Barbato's negotiating tactics. "I truly believed we could make a difference," she said. "They weren't going to walk away from their investment."

That recalled Forest City's effort to renegotiate the Vanderbilt Yard deal in 2009 with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The MTA acted like Forest City had the agency over a barrel, though I'd still contend that, given the deadline for a bond deal and to move the money-losing Nets, Forest City had more to lose.

Ridge Hill Watch?

Barbato, in a lively exchange with Jereis's defense lawyer, Anthony Siano, elaborated on several site photos he showed her.

"I look at it every day through my bedroom window," she said. "I can't sleep at night for the lights." (It wasn't clear whether she was referring to construction or just the project itself.)

At another point, Barbato playfully invited Siano: "Come and visit and see the lights."

Maybe there's a market for Ridge Hill Watch, along the lines of Atlantic Yards Watch?


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