MTA receives rival bid for Atlantic Yards News Analysis

News Analysis

The Brooklyn Paper
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At first glance, the May 24 issuance of a request for proposals by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for the development rights over the state agency’s Vanderbilt Yards train tracks seemed a mere formality.

After all, officials of real estate development company Forest City Ratner, and that company’s principal owner Bruce Ratner, had spent the past year and a half in discussions with the MTA for the rights to build a professional basketball arena and 17 residential and commercial high-rises, including skyscrapers, over the Long Island Rail Road storage yards east of Flatbush Avenue in a development that would also include private property south of those train tracks.

So it was inevitable that the rival bid submitted by a Manhattan-based developer for the 8.5-acre rail yard site just before the July 6 deadline would turn some heads, to say the least.

Extell Development Company, which recently purchased 77 acres of Upper West Side property from Donald Trump and his partners for $1.8 billion, insisted in the face of scrutiny of their motivations last week that the bid was legitimate, earnest and sincere.

The Extell plan proposes 11 buildings, as opposed to Ratner’s 17. The tallest would be 28 stories, whereas the Ratner plan’s tallest peaks at 60 stories, dwarfing the iconic Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower.

With 1,940 residential units and 116,000 square feet of office space, Extell’s proposal pales in size to Ratner’s looming, Frank Gehry-designed towers, part of a plan that also includes 1.9 million square feet of office space, and a 19,000-seat arena for Ratner’s New Jersey Nets NBA team.

Extell’s proposal also boasts some of the same community-centric ethos that Ratner’s company touted at the signing on June 27 of a community benefits agreement, or CBA, witnessed by Mayor Bloomberg.

The Extell design, by Brooklyn architects Cetra-Ruddy, snakes in waves across the three MTA blocks “like a train,” as described by principal owner Gary Barnett. Extell would bring 1,940 residential units onto the MTA-owned site alone; Ratner’s plan, extending beyond the MTA site, includes approximately 13 acres of adjacent private property, some of it subject to state condemnation under eminent domain, and envisions as many as 7,300 housing units.

|Extell Development Company’s plan for the railyards along Atlantic Avenue is considerably smaller than the plan proposed by Bruce Ratner.

Community support

Barnett said he learned of the MTA’s request for proposals through the solicitation of the anti-Ratner-plan-group Develop-Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB). He has, like Ratner, signed on to a community agreement of sorts.

Barnett has agreed to abide by the 60-point “Principles for Responsible Community Development” endorsed by at least 19 organizations including such community stalwarts as the Boerum Hill Association, Fifth Avenue Committee, Fort Greene Association and Pratt Area Community Council.

Ratner’s CBA promised certain amenities to the co-signers, such as active roles in oversight of job development, hiring and training, and made commitments regarding construction work for minorities (35 percent) and women (10 percent) and the placement of public housing residents.

Extell’s agreement is less specific in detailing its oversight structure and beneficiaries, but it commits Barnett’s company in ways not envisioned under the Ratner plan: it promises to disavow the taking of private property through eminent domain and to voluntarily put its proposal through the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP).

Ratner’s plan is excluded from ULURP, which is the most stringent review process in the state.

Extell has also promised to comply with contextual zoning regulations for the surrounding area, not exceed a 6.0 floor-area ratio in bulk, not close any public streets, partner with local housing advocates, guarantee 30 percent of the affordable housing units are owner-occupied, guarantee 20 percent of all construction work to minority and women-owned contractors and provide job training programs, ensure 100 percent of storm water run-off goes into a sewage treatment plant and assure more than 160,000 square feet of public park or open space..

“It’s something we thought we could live with,” said Barnett of the agreement.

Using the yards

Unlike the Ratner plan, Barnett’s plan does not require relocation of the rail yards.

But Barnett would expect to get the $200 million in city and state infrastructure that has been offered to Forest City Ratner by the mayor and governor since a platform would still need to be built over the rail yards.

“Certain parts of the site will need the platform,” Barnett told The Brooklyn Papers this week. “We’re not asking the MTA to fund any of those infrastructure improvements. Our understanding is the city and the state both have appropriated money for that; our understanding is that it is not exclusive to any one developer.

“Other than that we don’t anticipate any other subsidies than the incentives for the inclusion for affordable housing,” he said.
But while Barnett offered his bid at the same time as Forest City Ratner, Ratner has nearly two years of prep work behind him.
For starters, he already owns a substantial swath of property in the area. And Ratner enjoys the wholehearted support of both Gov. George Pataki, who staffs most of the MTA board, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Even the MTA request for proposals seemed tailor-made to Ratner, stating that the “City of New York’s designated Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area developer has proposed a high density mixed-use project for the site and surrounding parcels including an arena.”

Arena allies

Only a day after Extell’s bid was announced, it was assailed by Borough President Marty Markowitz, whose dream of bringing an NBA team to Brooklyn — to restore some of the local sports glory taken away by the Brooklyn Dodgers’ when the baseball team fled for Los Angeles after the 1957 season — has been acknowledged as a catalyst for the creation of Ratner’s plan.

He has been a cheerleader for Ratner’s plan since it was announced in late 2003.

“The Extell proposal may benefit the small number of people who are opposed to the Ratner plan, but it certainly doesn’t benefit most Brooklynit­es,” complained Markowitz in a prepared statement.

“Where’s the affordable housing? Where’s the job outreach for the community?” he said.

“I’ve always said that competing proposals are welcome for the rail yards site and it is certainly a healthy thing that another bid has been put forth,” the statement continued. “I expect the MTA to make the best possible comprehensive deal for the state, New York City, Brooklyn and public transit. That deal should produce significant tax revenue, jobs and housing. It should also include an arena.

“Extell’s proposal appears to provide minimal affordable housing,” he said.

“It does not include an arena and lacks the significant job training and job creation of [Forest City Ratner’s] bid.”
Barnett called Markowitz’s nay saying unfounded.

“I’m not sure why he thinks it’s not beneficial to greater Brooklyn,” he said. “What is the matter with a moderate and substantial project that repairs and modifies two neighbors?

“So his thinking is that if there was an arena, he would support our project?” Barnett wondered, and pointed out that a project should be based on what it brings into a community as a whole.

Barnett added that his project would include a school near where the arena is planned under Ratner’s plan, an idea that he said was well received.

“I think [our plan] does have community support. It seems to me our project has merit and it is a good development; the only thing it seems is missing is an arena for Brooklyn.

“We’re certainly not advocating whether there should be an arena or shouldn’t be an arena, and I’d love to have the support of the borough president,” Barnett said, adding that an arena was not out of the question under his plan.

“I think perhaps a solution could be found if everybody wants to have an arena,” he said.

All aboard

Asked for the dollar-value of his bid, Barnett said he would not disclose the amount of respect to the MTA, but said he would like to see the agency put the information out there.

“We would be very content if the MTA were to release all information about the various bids,” he said.
Ratner’s executives agreed.

“We will share information about the bid once it is presented to the board,” said Joe DePlasco, a spokesman for Forest City Ratner, who touted the community benefits agreement as representing “a broad coalition of community representa­tives.”

Still, anti-Ratner-plan community organizations turned out July 7 on the steps of City Hall, along with Councilwoman Letitia James, state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and Congressman Major Owens to offer their support, unsolicited, to the Extell bid.

“We, the people, say these are our streets,” said James. “We, the people, say this is our community. A plan that respects us is a plan that doesn’t involve eminent domain.”

The MTA board could make a decision as soon as its July 27 monthly meeting, but does not have a deadline.

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