Revising Ratner

Revising Ratner

The big news for the beleaguered Atlantic Yards last month was the scrapping of Frank Gehry’s design of the Nets arena, announced on June 4, followed by the confirmation that his schemes for the project’s 17 proposed buildings, among them some 6,000 apartment units, an office-hotel tower, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of stores and open space, would also not be used.

But the more important news—as to whether or not those buildings will get built at all—came three weeks later, when the MTA and the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) renegotiated with Forest City Ratner over the sale and eventual build-out of the yards. Despite outcry from project opponents and tough questions from some MTA board members, both deals went forward in the developer’s favor.

On June 23, the ESDC board approved a modified General Project Plan, altering one first approved in 2006, when the project was to have broken ground. The new plan moves the timeline back three years, with an expected groundbreaking this fall. Instead of developing the entire site at once, it also calls for phased development, with the deck for the arena parcel between Flatbush, Atlantic, and 6th avenues to be completed first, the arena finished by 2012, and four surrounding towers by 2016. At that point, construction will continue on six plots to the east, with final completion of the remaining apartment towers expected by 2019.

Opponents have questioned this timing, due to the deterioration of the economy and Ratner’s troubles securing financing thus far. Another possible roadblock is that the agency has not prepared a supplemental environmental impact statement, arguing that the earlier one pertains to the same project. The plan declares that despite all the changes—it lists a half-dozen—they “would not result in any new or substantially significant impacts,” and thus there is no need for a new environmental review.

The modified plan is still open to a 60-day review period, at which point the corporation board will vote on a final, possibly revised version.

Meanwhile, the MTA board voted on June 24 to shift Forest City Ratner’s payment for the development rights to the railyards from a $100 million lump sum to a $20 million upfront payment for the arena lot, with the remaining $80 million to be paid out over the following 22 years.

The developer’s commitment to building new railyards was also cut from nine tracks for 76 cars to seven tracks for 56 cars, reducing the infrastructural costs of the project from $345 million to $147 million. It is a particularly significant change, since state-of-the-art yards were part of Ratner’s offer that helped him secure the project over an opposing offer from Extell. “They’re delivering what the railroad needed,” MTA chief financial officer Gary Dellaverson said in defense of the changes. “It’s a step up from the default position we have now. But it’s not quite what was first proposed.”

Despite the agencies’ vote of confidence in the developer, the latest maneuvers still provide some hope for Daniel Goldstein, founder of anti-yards coalition Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, in the group’s efforts to stall, and potentially halt, the project through court challenges.

“They’ve opened themselves up to additional litigation,” Goldstein said. Further suits could delay the project and push it past the end of the year, when the sale date for tax-exempt bonds expires. If Ratner cannot secure financing by April 1, the state will cancel all deals.

A version of this article appeared in AN 12_07.08.2009.