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Council to attack land grabs Bill would axe city cash for Ratner’s Nets plan

Bill would axe city cash for Ratner’s Nets plan

The Brooklyn Paper

A bill was introduced in the City Council this week that would bar the city from using eminent domain solely for economic development purposes and prohibit city funds from being used for such projects.

Eighteen council members signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation, drafted by Prospect Heights Councilwoman Letitia James.
The legislation came in response to a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that affirmed the right of state governments to take private property in the name of economic development.

The bill, if passed before developer Bruce Ratner works out a deal to purchase development rights from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and then gains state environmental approval for his Atlantic Yards plan, could cut half of the $200 million committed to the project by the city and state. The Ratner project calls for construction of a 19,000-seat basketball arena and a 17-tower office and residential complex emanating from the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues over a six-square-block swath of Prospect Heights.

It also threatens the use of eminent domain to condemn up to 13 acres of private property.

“Obviously it came in response to the [Supreme Court’s] decision,” James said of the legislation.

“I wanted to limit the use of public funds in a private taking, and in a private development, for primarily private reasons, which is different than for a public taking,” she said, speaking of the Atlantic Yards project, which is planned for her district.

James has unwaveringly opposed the Atlantic Yard proposal, and did not hedge when expressing how the bill would affect the project.
“It would be used for the purposes of the Atlantic Yards and other takings throughout the City of New York, where a private developer is benefiting and it’s not for a public use,” said James.

Co-signors of the bill included Brooklyn City Council members Vincent Gentile (D-Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst), Charles Barron (D-East New York, Brownsville), Vito Lopez (D-Bushwick-Ridgewood), Al Vann (D-Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights) and James Oddo (R-Bensonhurst, Dyker Heights, Bath Beach and Staten Island).

Eleven members of the 23-member Land Use committee are co-sponsors of the bill, including the committee’s chairwoman, Melinda Katz, a Democrat from Forest Hills, Queens.

James said she believed much of the bill’s support came from a sentiment supporting the rights of private property owners that was solidified following the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“I think there’s been a groundswell of support around the nation around property rights and in protest of the Supreme Court’s decision,” said James. “That sentiment is what I’m feeling, not only in my district, but throughout the City of New York.”

Gentile said he supported the bill out of principal.

“Eminent domain was originally intended for the public good, not to line the pockets of a particular private citizen, and this is how it should remain,” said the former state senator. “We have to be vigilant in ensuring that this considerable government power is applied with utmost discretion.”

Ratner and his major supporters, who include Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. George Pataki and Borough President Marty Markowitz, argue the massive development will provide more housing and bring in new tax revenues, both for the public good.

The bill defines “economic development” as “any activity to increase tax revenue, tax base, employment, or general economic health, when that economic activity does not result in” the transfer of land to “public ownership … such as a road, hospital or military base” or “to a private entity that is a common carrier, such as a railroad or a utility.”

The bill could potentially stifle funding for city and state development corporations seeking incentives like tax breaks, tax abatements, subsidies and initiatives if those entities put forth projects that require the condemnation of private land.

The city’s Housing Development Corporation has reported that the $3 billion Atlantic Yards project could cost taxpayers $76 million in subsidies.

As reported in last week’s Brooklyn Papers, whether or not the project is approved, a signed agreement between the city, state and Ratner commits extended development rights that sidestep city review to the developer over the existing Atlantic Terminal and Atlantic Center malls, as well as a block that contains an electronics and a sporting goods store, across the street.

Representatives of the developer’s company, Forest City Ratner, did not return calls seeking comment for this article.

Norman Siegel, a civil liberties attorney who represents property owners in the footprint of Ratner’s proposed project, said he thought the bill could affect the Atlantic Yards proposal, if it didn’t get bogged down in committee or delayed by Council Speaker Gifford Miller, a supporter of the project who is running for the Democratic mayoral nomination.

“That’s a good bill, that’s a bill I not only can support, but it’s the kind of bill I’ve been advocating,” said Siegel, who is a candidate for public advocate.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that the majority of people in New York City don’t want eminent domain for economic development. We all grew up with the principals that the government should not, and cannot, take private property for private uses only.”

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