While the news that Frank Gehry is officially off Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project may not come as a surprise, it has certainly stirred up new feelings for the project, most of them negative. Whether or not the departure of the famed Santa Monica architect will have any political impact remains to be seen. But at a public meeting held last night by anti-Yards group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the “bait-and-switch” was mentioned, but also pushed aside as a tactic in what the group sees as the final, crucial fight for the site through the end of the year.
Instead, the activists, politicians, and attorneys who spoke focused squarely on the same battlefield that has carried them throughout the process: The courts.
It all starts on June 24, when both the MTA and the Empire State Development Corporation will hold meetings on changes to the site. At the latter meeting, the ESDC board is expected to release an updated General Project Plan, which will drastically alter the scope and timeline of development at the site.
Letitia James, the local city council representative, said she had recently heard from people at the ESDC that all that was included in the new plan was the arena and one building. That would be a marked change down from the original proposal of an arena and 16 towers containing thousands of affordable housing units in addition to market rate apartments and office space. (A spokesperson for the ESDC declined to comment ahead of the meeting.)
By the calculations of Daniel Goldstein, founder of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the developer has until the end of the year to issue special bonds for the project before they lose their tax-exempt status, something that could add hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to the project.
But the project has changed so much that, in the view of Goldstein and others, the state would have to perform a supplemental environmental impact review. “If we’re going to be stuck with parking lots for decades, that’s something we have to study and understand,” James said. The problem, as critics well know, is that such a review would take months and push the groundbreaking, now planned for the fall, past its year-end deadline.
As for the MTA, the board will announce, hear public testimony, and vote on Forest City Ratner’s proposal to change the payment structure of its deal to acquire the rail yard site. Originally valued at $100 million, there is speculation that the developer may try and make a smaller upfront payment in the neighborhood of $20 million, with the rest coming later, or another lump sum payment less than the $100 million amount.
Goldstein believes this, coupled with the ESDC’s new plan, will require a vote by the Public Authorities Control Board. Controlled by the governor, Assembly speaker, and Senate majority leader, the board votes on all matters concerning public authorities such as the one that would be created to handle the arena bonds, and because the structure of the deal, both at the MTA and ESDC, had changed, in Goldstein’s view, it would require a vote—something the politicians involved would likely be loath to do because the project has become so much more controversial since the last vote, in 2006.
Goldstein is doubtful Governor David Paterson will stand up on the issue, having never spoken out publicly against it, despite his opposition to eminent domain. (A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to requests for comment.) In some way, though, this is actually to the group’s advantage.
“We expect the moves they make will trigger litigation, but we have to see,” Goldstein said in an interview after the meeting. Despite having never won a case, through repeated appeals at the federal and state levels on two lawsuits over the last two years, the group has managed to hold the project at bay while its economic, political, and architectural underpinnings evaporated. The group’s appeals have almost run out, but this latest round of political announcements could provide for a whole other round of legal challenges.
Hope also remains that Dennis Kucinich will explore whether sports complexes are valid sources of tax-exempt bonds. The Ohio Congressman challenged their validity at the Yankees’ and Mets’ new stadiums during hearings last fall, though ultimately no changes were made to those deals. The main difference, though, is that those two were all but finished, whereas the new Nets arena has not even started construction, a fact that could lead Kucinich to try and stop, or at least hold up, the issuance of the bonds. Goldstein also hopes changes to the MTA arrangement might trigger oversight hearings from sympathetic representatives in Albany.
“As you saw in today’s Times, architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that the departure of Frank Gehry was a betrayal of the public trust,” Goldstein told the audience of about 100 at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. “It is, but this project from the beginning was a betrayal of the public trust, the way it was conceived, the way it proceeded. It’s all been one big bait-and-switch.”
“We don’t know, but we suspect this may be make or break time for this developer,” he continued. “We’ve held them at bay for this long, so it would be a real shame to hold back in the next few months.”