MTA opens bidding on rail yards site

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If you want to build something other than a basketball arena and skyscrapers over the Atlantic Avenue rail yards, this is your chance.

But judging from the bidding over the Hudson Yards in Manhattan earlier this year, you’d better have several-hundred million dollars.

The ear of the mayor and governor wouldn’t hurt.

And you’d better work quickly — the proposals are due July 6.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority quietly issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) this week seeking bids for development rights over its Long Island Rail Road storage yards near Atlantic and Flatbush avenues, where developer Bruce Ratner wants to build a 19,000-seat basketball arena and four skyscrapers.

The RFP invites proposals for “the sale or lease of all or some of the air space and related real property interests” in one or more of three parcels of the rail yards, properly called the Vanderbilt Yards, which sit between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street, from Fifth Avenue to Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights.

The three parcels are 100,000 square feet, 119,000 square feet, and 148,000 square feet, and the complete guidelines are available on the MTA’s Web site,

Although MTA spokesman Tom Kelly had told The Brooklyn Papers in previous interviews that anybody who wanted to could bid on the MTA property, the RFP was the first public attempt the agency has made to solicit bids there.

“An RFP makes sure that everybody and his mother knows about it, and they can bid if they want,” Kelly explained this week. “It opens up the entire process to anyone who would be interested in bidding.

“The purpose is to see who else is interested in the property,” he said.

The cash-strapped MTA, which faces a massive budget deficit and has threatened service cutbacks and fare hikes is under great public pressure to seek top-dollar for the Vanderbilt Yards.

Since Ratner’s Forest City Ratner Companies announced plans to build a professional basketball arena and 17 residential and commercial high-rises emanating from Atlantic and Flatbush avenues out to Vanderbilt Avenue in December 2003, no official bids have come forward, according to the MTA. Neither has Forest City Ratner offered a public bid on the development rights over the rail yards.

Forest City Ratner has since discussed plans with MTA officials to move the rail yards and upgrade them. The yards now actively store MTA buses and LIRR trains, which come in at night.

The announcement of the RFP this week raised questions as to just where Forest City Ratner stands in terms of negotiations with the MTA and the significance of a letter signed by MTA and Forest City Ratner officials that stipulates an “if ... when” agreement for the property.

In response to the call for proposals last week, which appeared as a public announcement in the New York Times on May 18, Forest City Ratner said the request indicated positive movement.

“We welcome the RFP and look forward to a successful completion of this stage of the project,” said Bruce Bender, Forest City Ratner’s executive vice president for government and community affairs.

“We always expected that the MTA would issue an RFP, since they stated as much in the letter of agreement they signed with Forest City Ratner,” Bender added.

Neysa Pranger, an organizer for the Straphanger’s Campaign, said in an April interview with The Brooklyn Papers that an open RFP bidding process is the only way the MTA could “realize the full value of the rail yards.” But, she cautioned, the competition can be iced out when “power brokers are running the processes.”

Pranger’s Straphanger’s Campaign was one of four public interest groups that in April filed a lawsuit against the MTA, charging the agency violated its statutory duty by not getting as much money as possible for the Hudson Yards in Manhattan and did not conduct a fair and open bidding process. The MTA board voted 14-0 to accept the New York Jets’ $250 million bid for the rights to build a football stadium that is also the centerpiece of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 Olympic bid, over the rail yards. The agency rejected a $760 million-plus bid from Cablevision, which owns Madison Square Garden.

Lawyers for MSG said in their own lawsuit that the MTA, with its politically appointed board, approved the Jets’ bid because the stadium is a project that the mayor and Gov. George Pataki wanted.

Even if Ratner’s plans are trumped by a bidder willing to pay more — as Cablevision did in its losing bid for the Hudson Yards site in Manhattan — the sale must be approved by the 17 members of the MTA board, all of whom are nominated by Pataki, and four of who are recommended by the mayor.

Both the mayor and governor have expressed their support for Ratner’s plan.

Asked if the bidding process would help determine the value of the rail yards development rights, Kelly said, “It would depend on the number of bids and how many people are interested in the property.”

Forest City Ratner officials have said the company will pay whatever the land is determined to be worth.

“We have said repeatedly that we would pay fair market value for this land,” said Bender. “The RFP process is one way to determine that value.”

Frustrated residents who oppose the arena, say the RFP should be withheld until an independent appraisal of the site is undertaken, which the MTA promised would be done.

“I just think it’s the cart before the horse,” said Patti Hagan, a staunch opponent of the plan who co-founded the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, an anti-arena group.

“It’s backwards, the independent appraisal would set a bottom price from where the bidding would start,” she said.

“If the value were established it would be easier for bidders to figure out where they had to go in order to get a piece of the property.” She noted that on the West Side of Manhattan, an appraisal determined the rail yards’ value to be $923 million.

Kelly said off-handedly that he wasn’t sure of the status of the appraisal, and did not return several inquiries on the matter by press time.

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