Atlantic Yards at 5: What went wrong?

Atlantic Yards at 5: What went wrong?
Gehry Partners

It remains the question that is on every Brooklynite’s mind: What is going on at Atlantic Yards?

The answer: just about nothing.

Five years after Bruce Ratner introduced his sweeping vision for a 22-acre mini-city on and around the Long Island Railroad train yards — which would balloon into a $4.2-billion, publicly subsidized project including 16 skyscrapers, a 19,000-seat sports arena, 6,800 apartments, and top-grade office space — reality has trumped the dream.

• Of the 16 skyscrapers, Ratner is only speaking about building two in the near term — and even those are delayed.

• The project’s centerpiece — the iconic “Miss Brooklyn” tower at the gateway to Atlantic Yards, the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues — isn’t part of the complex anymore, a victim of Ratner’s inability to land an anchor tenant for its commercial or office space.

• Much of the site of an arena for the Ratner-owned New Jersey Nets, the most highly touted and arguably popular element of the project, remains an empty pit, though it was promised to be hosting National Basketball Association games by 2006.

While ongoing litigation — one of the last major cases won’t even be heard until January — may have contributed to some delays, the economy’s collapse is the biggest player right now.

Ratner’s parent company, the Ohio-based Forest City Enterprises, admitted this week that even it doesn’t know what the future will hold for Atlantic Yards.

“We remain committed to this [project],” Forest City CEO Charles Ratner told investors on Wednesday — but then quickly allowed reality to seep into his conference call. “When we get — and we believe we will — successfully through the last of the litigation in 2009, we’ll evaluate the market at the time and see what our next steps are.”

Evaluate the market? How did this done deal come so undone?

The project was certainly greeted with oohing and ahhing from some community leaders, elected officials and, yes, most of the city’s press corps on Dec. 10, 2003, when Ratner and Gehry made their first presentation of their still-unfinished design at Borough Hall. At the time, Ratner said that the arena — then priced at $396-million — would be built with private money.

Borough President Markowitz immediately positioned himself as the principal cheerleader of a project that he said would be “a win-win for the community [and] Brooklyn.” But the arena’s cost has ballooned to close to $1 billion — all of it fronted by the public. And Markowitz’s reputation took a blow when it was revealed that charities he controls had received at least $400,000 in corporate contributions from Forest City Ratner.

At this point, the larger project — all those Gehry towers, the promised seven acres of publicly accessible open space, 6,800 units of housing (2,250 of them below-market rate), and construction jobs, as well as the Nets arena — is stalled.

Readers of The Brooklyn Paper saw it coming years ago. Here’s why:

No public review

Project opponents charge that the Original Sin of Atlantic Yards was a decision by the Empire State Development Corporation — a state agency that had the Bloomberg Administration’s blessing — to allow Ratner to proceed without the rigorous public review required of other developers who seek even the smallest land-use change from the city.

As a result, critics say, the project was never reviewed in the same way that independently driven projects are looked at, and many red flags weren’t caught as a result.

The developer did admit to many potential flaws in its draft Environmental Impact Statement, but because there was no real public review, there was no accountability for fixing them.

As the statement indicates, the huge influx of housing would have created the densest census tract in the country, which would put a significant strain on the public school system, already-choked intersections, aging sewers and the city’s existing police and fire protection.

Ratner did sign a “Community Benefits Agreement” with six community groups in 2004, but closer inspection revealed that several of the groups did not even exist prior to signing the contract with Ratner. Worse, the deal made specific unenforceable promises and barred the groups from saying anything critical about the project.

So it was only fitting that last December, when departing Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff was leaving office, he said that if the city could do the project all over again, it would have demanded a proper public review.

Towers of lies

Ratner may have only himself to blame for his predicament, given that so many promises — promises that gave cover to the elected officials who originally backed the project — have turned out to be hollow.

After years of pie-in-the-sky projections, state officials admitted in December, 2006, that the project would only create $15.7 million in tax revenues every year for the city and state — nearly $5 billion less over 30 years than project boosters initially promised.

A 52,000-square-foot “public” park atop the arena, which would have been a track in summer and ice-skating rink in winter, turned out to be a private space.

That 10-year construction timeline? In March 2007, Ratner revealed that the full project would not be done until at least 2022, despite officials once saying it could be done by 2012.

A year later, in March 2008, Ratner finally admitted that his megaproject was doomed. At that time, he unveiled an altered version that consisted of little more than the arena and two scaled-back residential buildings.


Opponents of Atlantic Yards say that the project might have avoided lawsuits entirely had it gone through a rigorous public review.

Absent that review, a group called Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn emerged as the principal opposition group. The group has filed four main lawsuits against the state and developer since the project started. Forest City Ratner has said recently that it will not continue work until litigation is wrapped up, which will be well into 2009.

The first suit, filed in January 2006 in state Supreme Court, charged that the state wrongfully approved the demolition of six buildings within the project’s footprint.

A second suit, filed in April 2007 against the Empire State Development Corporation, charged that state officials approved the project without fully considering its environmental impacts. A Manhattan supreme court judge ruled in favor of the state this January, but the plaintiffs have appealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear a third case on the state’s use eminent domain power to transfer privately owned land to a private developer, but the case was refiled in state court, where DDDB lawyers say they have found a silver bullet” to kill the project: a clause in the state Constitution that bars public money from underwriting any urban renewal project unless the housing created by the project is “restricted to persons of low income.” A hearing is set for January.

The downturn

As part of his sweetheart deal to control the Vanderbilt Yards, Ratner must renovate the yards so that they can still function even with an arena on top of them. That work began in February 2007, but last week, it abruptly stopped. Ratner says it’s because the first phase of the work has been completed. Others aren’t so sure.

Develop Don’t Destroy spokesman Daniel Goldstein said the work stoppage is a delay tactic.

“No one knows how long the economy is going to stay this way, and we can’t let Ratner tread water on our land forever,” Goldstein said on Wednesday. “If it’s up to Ratner, they’ll wait as long as they can. But it’s time for the governor to rescue the community from what is turning into a disaster.”

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