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Last holdouts? Times depicts chilly developer, unwisely suggests remaining occupants miscalculated

So, what to make of Matt Chaban's "The Appraisal" column in today's Times, In Arena’s Shadow, Holdouts at Atlantic Yards Site Must Now Leave

It portrays the remaining occupants of the Atlantic Yards footprint--actually, omitted are Modell's/P.C. Richard, focus of the yet-unscheduled final round of eminent domain, at Site 5--with partial sympathy. And it offers a notably chilly quote from the developer:
“We’re so lucky to have found a partner who is impatient, just like we are, and their message to us is let’s get this done,” Ashley Cotton, Forest City Ratner’s vice president for external affairs, said in an interview. “We know our neighbors, we’re sympathetic to whatever experience they’re having, but this is really another enormous milestone on the path of Pacific Park.”
The buildings in question are on Block 1128, just east of Sixth Avenue.
Also slated for demolition are buildings on Block 1120, jutting into railyard.
But it ends with some incredulity toward the "holdouts," leaving the presumptuous impression that they miscalculated, and were somehow unwilling to fall in line with the developer.

The story, however, is more complicated, and deserves more detail.

Leading off

Chaban visits Aaron Piller of Atlantic Wool, a wholesale business in a warehouse at Sixth Avenue and Pacific Street, part of--unmentioned--a 100-foot-wide strip of land that was very curiously drawn as part of a "blighted" site. 

Actually, it was intended to serve as a staging area for construction of the arena and four towers, but when they were put on hold, so too did several of the buildings stay. 

2006 photo before two buildings at left were demolished
Now--again unmentioned--they're in the path of a planned 27-story market-rate tower, a jarring juxtaposition with four-story apartment buildings to the east, but with a school at the base.

That adds some measure of public purpose to a building constructed by Greenland Forest City Partners, a new joint venture 70% owned by the government of Shanghai.

Piller and a few others must leave in the next month or two, upending their previous thought that delays and the recession had given them more time. 

Unmentioned is that they have since lived and worked through significant disruptions from construction and arena operations, which diminished the quality of life.

Piller offers a quote regarding his late father that likely will generate some pushback. "I don’t want to trivialize what happened by comparing this to the Holocaust,” Piller told the Times, “but in the end, he felt like here was the government again, coming to take everything from him.”

Misreading Goldstein

The article also contains an incorrect reference to the most high-profile eminent domain settlement:
Five years ago, Atlantic Yards’s most vocal opponent and obstacle, Daniel Goldstein, agreed to walk away from his three-bedroom condominium for $3 million. His building then came down so that Bruce C. Ratner’s arena-and-apartments complex could rise.
As Goldstein reminded me, he didn't agree to walk away from his condo, because it wasn't his any more. The state had taken it. He was a tenant, faced with eviction papers. Justice Abraham Gerges then pushed for both parties agree to an eviction date and the "just compensation" law requires, including a premium for a swifter departure.

Campbell's "idiosyncratic terms"

The article states:
Jerry Campbell, one of two homeowners left, must soon hand over the keys to a pair of rowhouses that his grandfather bought in the 1940s and 1960s after emigrating from Barbados. Sitting on a couch inside the tin-ceilinged living room of 493 Dean Street, the larger home, Mr. Campbell insisted he would gladly leave — if only his idiosyncratic terms were met.
...When Forest City first approached Mr. Campbell in 2005 — the year after his grandfather died and left the homes to him and some overseas relatives — he countered its offer to buy the property with a swap. Mr. Campbell, who is handling the family’s negotiations, said he suggested Forest City give him 12,000 square feet of space in the 27-story tower that would rise from his lots.
“I said they should make me a junior partner,” he recalled.
The proposal was rejected out of hand, but Mr. Campbell still clings to some kind of trade, rather than a sale.
Indeed, as I wrote, Campbell initially sought a trade that compensated him for the increased development rights to the property, and now simply seeks to get a row house in Prospect Heights. 

Campbell's house at center
The first effort, though unusual, is hardly idiosyncratic, since it 1) recognizes how Forest City Ratner (now Greenland Forest City) benefits from the override of development rights and 2) echoes "land readjustment" practices in some other countries.

The second effort aims to get Campbell equivalent valuation for his house--note that he does not control the second of the houses.

However, the state so far has suggested comparables averaging less than $1.7 million, mainly in Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, two very different locations.

So it could easily be said that the state's process is "idiosyncratic," even unbalanced. 

The article doesn't mention the dubious claim by the state that all occupants must be gone by the end of February, which was contradicted by the state's agreement to have Piller's business leave by the end of March and another business, on Block 1120, leave by the end of April.

The state's low-ball offers

Both Piller--who, unmentioned, has agreed to leave--and Campbell have received initial compensation offers lower than those presented by Forest City. Chaban writes, in closing:
“We will continue to work closely with the entire community, including the affected residents and businesses, to address and meet their needs and concerns,” said Marion Phillips III, president of the state's Atlantic Yards Community Development Corporation.
Both men may not like the state's numbers, but ultimately they may be the ones who miscalculated the situation.
They were party to some of the lawsuits trying to stop Atlantic Yards, but unlike Mr. Goldstein, neither was particularly outspoken about it. Even so, Mr. Campbell said he would have done everything the same way.
“It’s not that I’m anti-Ratner,” he said. “I’m just for myself.”
As the cheering crowds stream by on the way to the arena, he may be the only one.
First, Phillips's statement is pure piffle. 

Secondly, it's hard to say that the men miscalculated the situation. Why should they have left on the developer's timetable? Part of just compensation is to get a fair premium for being forced to leave on someone else's terms.

And it's presumptuous to say that the resolution of just compensation won't provide better payments; what is clear, though, is that the time it takes, especially for a residential owner like Campbell, can be burdensome.

As for the last line--"As the cheering crowds stream by on the way to the arena, he may be the only one"--that's a cheap shot. 

It's unfair to compare residents to consumers of entertainment, especially since Campbell is not being displaced for the arena. It's unwise to assume that everyone going to the arena is somehow supportive of the development, or of Ratner. And it's unwise to presume that others in the neighborhood don't support the "holdouts."

Second thoughts from the author


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