DOUBLE DEALING While heralding Atlantic Yards, city & state officials quietly agree to let Ratner build atop adjacent sites

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The same day they signed a widely publicized agreement setting aside land for developer Bruce Ratner’s proposed Atlantic Yards project, top officials of the Pataki and Bloomberg administrations signed a separate pact with the developer, granting him the right to build up adjacent urban renewal sites without city review.

That second agreement was never made public, but it turned up this week in the state’s response to a fairly broad Freedom of Information Act request made by a neighborhood group opposed to the Atlantic Yards plan.

The document stipulates that Ratner would be able to obtain the development rights to build nearly 1.9 million square feet of residential and commercial space on properties north and west of the Atlantic Avenue rail yards, exceeding the current zoning for those sites, without having to put the proposal through the city’s lengthy land use review process. That review requires public hearings before the community board, borough president, City Planning Commission and City Council. The developer currently operates the Atlantic Center mall and leases space to a Modell’s sporting goods store on those potential development sites. The Modell’s block also contains a PC Richard & Son electronics store. Ratner is currently negotitaing with the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority to build over the Long Island Rail Road storage yards across the street to build a professional basketball arena as part of the Atlantic Yards plan. Should he fail to work out a deal for that property, the second MOU stipulates, Ratner could still build on the two new sites, but would have to either abide by current zoning or gain city approval to surpass it.

Ratner’s interest in expanding his plan to include the block bounded by Pacific Street and Flatbush, Fourth and Atlantic avenues, was first revealed in a June 4 article in The Brooklyn Papers based on comments made by Forest City Ratner Executive Vice President James Stuckey. At a May 26 City Council hearing, Stuckey cited the expansion into Park Slope as a way to increase the amount of housing in the Atlantic Yards plan. But no mention was made of the deal for the site already signed by the city and state’s top development officials.

Develop-Don’t Destroy Brooklyn — a neighborhood group that opposes Ratner’s plan to build a professional basketball arena and a 17-tower housing, office space and commercial complex over six blocks of Prospect Heights emanating from Flatbush and Atlantic avenues — made copies of the agreement obtained in its request available to the public on Wednesday.

The second agreement, also signed on Feb. 18, makes the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) the lead agency for development in the “Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area” — allowing for the use of eminent domain condemnation of property and taking review of any zoning changes or transfers of unused development rights out of the city’s hands, much the same way as does the MOU for Ratner’s Atlantic Yards plan. None of the property referenced in the second MOU is owned by the state.

Both MOUs were signed by Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding Daniel Doctoroff, ESDC Chairman and CEO Charles Gargano, Ratner, and city Economic Development Corporation President Andrew Alper, but only the Atlantic Yards agreement was made public, in press releases issued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the EDC.

“Basically [the second MOU] says if the arena project is passed, [Ratner] can develop over those sites, and the [Atlantic Center] mall, and these two pieces of property don’t have to go through [city review],” said Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for DDDB.

“Why was this not released when the other one was? Why has this document not been made public?” Goldstein asked.

In laying out the parameters of the MOU, the document states: “The project shall mean the design, development and construction of a mixed-use development consisting of residential development, commercial office space, and retail space … using the unused development rights attributable to … Atlantic Center (including the rights attributable to the demapped portion of Fort Greene Place) which [the parties] believe consist of approximately 1.586 million zoning square feet … and Site 5, consisting of approximately 308,000 zoning square feet …”

The MOU also references an earlier pact for the sites, signed on May 17, 2004, suggesting the city and state intended to commit the development rights to Ratner long before support for Atlantic Yards was certain.

The document was obtained by Develop-Don’t Destroy Brooklyn after they submitted a freedom of information request to the ESDC, asking how Ratner’s Forest City Ratner Companies was chosen as the developer of the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area (ATURA), which encompasses parts of Downtown Brooklyn, Prospect Heights and Park Slope.

The project’s footprint would then encompass, and allow zoning overrides above, the Atlantic Terminal mall, which contains Target; the Atlantic Center mall, across Fort Greene Place, where Old Navy and Pathmark are located; provide for additional development above Fort Greene Place, across which an enclosed pedestrian bridge connects the two Ratner malls; and include the entire block that holds a single-story PC Richards appliance store and Modell’s athletic goods store, bounded by Pacific Street and Fourth, Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.

The latter block would also be subject to eminent domain condemnation, allowing Forest City Ratner to take property currently owned by PC Richard, which has not yet agreed to sell its portion of Site 5.

In a press release sent out to their e-mail list, DDDB provided a link to copies of both MOUs online.

“The whole Ratner deal has moved forward over the past two years in backrooms and with great secrecy,” Goldstein said.

“This unreleased second MOU raises serious questions about the developer’s honesty,” he added, as well as that of the city and state agencies involved.

A mayoral spokesman declined to comment and the ESDC referred all questions to the city.

“We do not distribute MOUs, but this one’s been available to anyone that requested it,” said Janel Patterson, a spokeswoman for the city EDC.

Asked how anyone could have possibly known of its existence, and why the one MOU was widely publicized while the other was never mentioned, she declined to comment.

Prospect Heights-Fort Greene Councilwoman Letitia James, a staunch opponent of Ratner’s Atlantic Yards plan, said she had heard nothing about the second MOU before DDDB released its finding this week.

“I knew nothing about this,” she said on Wednesday. “This is just another attempt by the [Bloomberg] administration to expand Forest City Ratner’s monopoly on Downtown Brooklyn.”

Patterson defended the choice of Ratner as the developer for the sites, saying, “We’ve been talking to FCR about his project for some time. We’re simply designating a developer to implement parts of the original urban renewal plan.”

James argued that the city’s negotiations with Ratner amounted to “sole sourcing,” handing deals to favored developers.

“Publicly, they have told me repeatedly that they will not do sole sourcing,” James said. “I say, if they’re against sole sourcing, then why doesn’t that same rule apply to Forest City Ratner?”

The councilwoman contends that the city should have put the property out for bid.

A Forest City Ratner spokesman said plans for Site 5 had already been made public.

“The proposed development at Site 5 should not come as a surprise to anyone,” said Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco. “In fact, it was part of a May presentation to the City Council, included in many other discussions and presentations.

“While not technically part of the Atlantic Yards development, it was included in these presentations because development there would, of course, be in close proximity to the larger project.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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