April 27, 2005: In Godzilla movies the money shot is when the big guy destroys
Tokyo. With crowds of city dwellers rushing around screaming,
trying to escape being crushed. But if developers Forest
City Ratner, and New York State's quasi-public Empire State
Development Corporation (ESDC), have their way, no one will be
left to flee the mammoth footprint of the proposed Atlantic Yards
Project in Brooklyn-- the neighborhood will have been destroyed
long before Godzilla gets there.
The footprint of Atlantic Yards encompasses 22 acres and six
square blocks. Most of the area lies within Prospect Heights,
and is adjacent to one of the largest transportation hubs
in New York City: the Atlantic Terminal. Where nine subway
lines and the Long Island Railroad converge. Eight acres of the
footprint is a Long Island Railroad train yard (Vanderbilt Yards)
controlled by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).
The rest of the targeted area is a residential and commercial
neighborhood. Until recently, it included 55 privately owned
parcels put to residential, retail, office, and manufacturing
purpose. Translating into 33 businesses, 235 employees, 125
homeowners, 209 tenants, and a 400 person homeless shelter.
Structures in the low built neighborhood date largely from the
early part of the last century; their conditions ranging from
neglected to decidedly upscale. All in all, a fairly typical
mix for NYC neighborhoods in boroughs other than solid gold
Manhattan. Where independent retail ventures, small
manufacturers and socially diverse neighborhoods are
becoming a thing of the past.
Godzilla & Company
In December 2003, Forest City Ratner Companies, New York City's
largest development firm, and its most active retail developer,
announced their plan for the Atlantic Yards Project. The MTA rail
yards and the neighborhood adjoining them, would be replaced by
a 20,500 seat sports arena and 17 luxury residential towers. A
platform would be constructed over the rail yards; part of the
project would be built atop it. The sports arena would occupy
about 10% of the overall area; the towers would take up the rest.
A pinch of public space would be provided, as would a certain
amount of government subsidized "affordable" housing. The sports
arena would service the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Which is
owned by a group headed by Bruce Ratner, of Forest City Ratner.
In order to come to fruition, the Atlantic Yards Project would
require, by the developers' own estimate, public assistance to
the tune of $1.1 billion. Studies done by economists not in
the Ratner camp, place the number higher. Ratner & crew claim
projected benefits, in terms of tax revenues, jobs, etc., will
make Atlantic Yards a good investment for taxpayers and a
revitalizing boost for Brooklyn. These projections are also
subject to debate. Many believe the residential towers would
financially carry the sports arena. Since urban sports arenas
haven't panned out to be the gold mines of past projections.
If Atlantic Yards comes to fruition, a diverse and fluid mini-
society of residential and commercial property owners, tenants,
workers and small businesses, operating in a relatively free
market manner, will be replaced by a behemoth luxury housing
complex and sports arena jacked by public money, yet owned by one
corporate entity. The arena will showcase their in-house team.
Any low and middle income residents of Atlantic Yards will be
carefully selected government pensioners, living in directly
subsidized "affordable" housing. Administered by the New York
arm of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now
(ACORN). A national, not-for-profit, tax advantaged group with
extensive involvement in taxpayer supported real estate.
ACORN's deal for their piece of Atlantic Yards requires them to
pimp Forest Ratner's ride. In the "Memorandum of Understanding"
struck between ACORN and Ratner in May, 2005, ACORN agrees to
help "advance the Project" by "appearing with the Developer
before the Public Parties, community organizations and the
media". The Memorandum also includes an agreement that not-for-profit ACORN will team up with Ratner to develop 600 to 1000
"for-sale units" both on site at Atlantic Yards, and in other
unspecified locations. The majority of these units will be sold
to "families in the upper affordable income tiers."
Atlantic Yards is a veritable vision of urban planned, state
capitalist hell. Complete with circles of affordability. Still,
if enough people want Ratopia so be it. Let Forest City Ratner
submit the project to local public process, negotiate to buy
property within the footprint from those willing to sell, and
then build to their heart's content.
But that's not the way the footprint is being played. Largely
because Forest City Ratner has the quasi-public, Empire State
Development Corporation (ESDC) on their side.
The ESDC is New York State's lead economic development authority.
The quasi-public ESDC administers an extensive array of programs
that channel billions of public dollars, both state and federal,
as well as tax abatements and other advantageous arrangements,
to developers and corporations the ESDC deems worthy. The ESDC
is also the parent organization of hundreds of smaller, locally
based development authorities statewide. The ESDC operates
outside many of the strictures placed on regular government
agencies and is more insulated from public oversight. The
rationale being that less accountability to voters and taxpayers
equals greater efficiency when boosting economic development
with government power and public money.
The ESDC has declared the Atlantic Yards Project a "State
Project" under New York State's Urban Development Corporation
Act. This allows Forest City Ratner to override certain forms
of local public review, including ones relating to planning,
land use, and zoning. The ESDC is also monitoring the Atlantic
Yards Project for its environmental impact-- as required by
the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). Though the
state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) enforces
regulations to implement SEQRA, the ESDC, when involved with
projects of corporations or developers, is the lead agency
monitoring those projects for possible environmental damage.
The most impressive power of the quasi-public ESDC, is its
ability to bestow the power of eminent domain-- the right of
government to seize private property in the name of "public use".
EDA & Out
When Forest City Ratner announced the Atlantic Yards Project in
late 2003, it was made clear eminent domain would be used to
assemble properties within the footprint. Governor George Pataki,
Senator Chuck Schumer, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
were standing beside Bruce Ratner when the announcement was made,
putting their imprimatur on the project. At that point, no
official process had made the neighborhood open for eminent
domain. In 2005, the ESDC signed onto Atlantic Yards. Their
first official document declared a prime purpose of the project
was to "eliminate blighted conditions". In New York State, a
determination of "blight" is required in order to allow
development related eminent domain.
Though describing the entire neighborhood (as opposed to a few
empty lots or dilapidated buildings) in the Atlantic Yards
footprint as blighted seems a stretch, New York State's criteria
re blight is as broad as it is vague; which is one reason why
New York is among the top states for eminent domain abuse (EDA).
Among the "blights" qualifying a home or commercial property for
eminent domain is "underutilization". In other words, if you own
a Mom & Pop store, and are paying less municipal taxes than might
be produced by a project touted by a taxpayer subsidized
developer, bulldozers could rev your way. Same story if you live
in a neighborhood of 50 properties, and 10 of them are run down.
No matter how tidy the other 40, you're living in a contiguous
slum in need of a blight fix. And then there's the "diversity
of ownership" blight, which makes "assemblage of property
difficult". As in, too many cooks spoil the urban plan-- and
the developer buyout. Old man Jones and that young couple down
the street might not want to sell their homes no matter how fair
the offer. Some folks are funny that way. Or maybe they just want
to gouge. Individuals don't have the right to be as profit driven
as developers using the power of the state to twist arms.
Over the last few years, arm twisting in the Atlantic Yards
footprint has been intense. Even before the ESDC came on the
scene, property owners in the neighborhood knew the threat of
eminent domain lay behind every Ratner offer. They were told
they could deal with The Rat-- or wait and deal with The State.
Owners who folded got a reasonable price. Buyout agreements
included gag orders and promises not to attend public meetings
about Atlantic Yards. Ratner temporarily waived the gag orders in
early April, so that some evacuees from the footprint could speak
with the New York Times-- for an article titled "Forced to Move,
Some Find Greener Grass". The New York Times was careful to
disclose that Forest City Ratner is the development partner
"building a new Midtown headquarters for The New York Times".
Though they didn't mention the project utilized eminent domain.
4 Every Force
While the pressure being brought to bear on people living neath
the shadow of the Atlantic Yards footprint is immense, Godzilla
is not experiencing a complete slam dunk. Those still standing in
the neighborhood, plus individuals and organizations from nearby
areas, or other parts of the borough who oppose the impact of
Ratopia on the larger footprint of Brooklyn, are tough minded,
tenacious and capable. This is after all, Brooklyn. In the
forefront is Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB). DDDB, plus
14 other petitioners, recently won a ruling against the ESDC and
Forest City Ratner in New York State Supreme Court. The issue was
conflict of interest, involving attorney David Paget of the law
firm Sive, Paget & Riesel, P.C. Until Supreme Court Justice Carol
Edmead ruled otherwise, Paget was working as council to the ESDC,
reviewing environmental aspects of the Atlantic Yards Project.
Until 2004, David Paget and Sive, Paget & Riesel had worked for
Forest City Ratner. On the Atlantic Yards Project.
Since the quasi-public ESDC represents the public interest
when it exercises its authority to override local laws and
approval process, monitor environmental impacts, and take private
property for the benefit of others, DDDB et al had argued that
"it's important that the ESDC's review of the (Atlantic Yards)
Project be transparent and objective." Whereas, the Ratner
Companies and the ESDC argued, among other things, that no
conflict of interest existed because "...the relationship
between the ESDC and Ratner Companies is not adversarial,
For those fearing their homes will be claimed by eminent domain,
it must be comforting to know that if it happens, the "taking"
will done by collaborators.
Though DDDB et al, lost on some other issues raised in the same
court case, their win was significant because the ESDC is often
accused of being crony cozy. Criticisms of deals given to
politically connected developers and corporations have been
expressed by state legislators, public watchdog groups, and
various New York State newspapers. Yet little has resulted. No
major reforms, or in-depth investigations. So it's kind of cool
that the little Davids from the Atlantic Yards footprint in
Brooklyn, managed to nail the ESDC on a conflict of interest
charge. Hopefully their victory will inspire others
to pick up larger slingshots.
Meanwhile, Governor George Pataki, plus legislators in the
New York State Senate and Assembly, have included a total of
$100 million in this year's state budget for Forest City Ratner
and the Atlantic Yards proposal. Even though the proposal hasn't
yet worked its way through the complete state review process.
Perhaps Godzilla needed something to tide him over till the
real money shot.
Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff
"Today, New York property owners face the use of eminent domain
by the Empire State Development Authority and a number of the
other 640-plus state, regional and local authorities....History
records a consistent effort on the part of the state's elites
to take the power to scrutinize expenditures out of the ordinary
citizen's reach and to remove government from the control of
their directly elected representatives."
Carol W. LaGrasse, President, Property Rights Foundation of America, Testimony before the New York State Senate Judiciary
Committee, Public Hearing on Eminent Domain, 04/03/06
"There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness and
disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of
pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real
order that is struggling to exist..."
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961
Sources include but are not limited to:
"Forced to Move, Some Find Greener Grass," Nicholas Confessore,
New York Times, 04/10/06
New York State Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator John A.
Francisco, Chairman, Public Hearing on Eminent Domain, Testimony:
Daniel Goldstein, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, 04/03/06
Final Disposition, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, et al. v.
Empire State Develop. Corp., et al., Supreme Court of The State
of New York, New York County, Hon. Carol Edmead, 02/14/06
Memorandum of Understanding, Atlantic Yards Development Company,
LLC (the "Developer") and Association of Community Organizations
for Reform Now ("ACORN), 05/17/05
"Life in the Atlantic Yards Footprint," Daniel Goldstein, Community
Gazette for District 35, 2005
Estimated Fiscal Impact of Forest City Ratner's Brooklyn Arena,
Jung Kim, MS London School of Economics and Gustav Peebles,
Ph.D., Columbia University, 06/21/04
Statement of Paul J. Gessing, Director of Government Affairs,
National Taxpayers Union, before the New York City Council on
Proposed New Jersey Nets Arena, 05/04/04
Forest City Ratner Companies-Company Overview, Forest City
Enterprises Inc., www.forestcity.net
Send comments or confidential tips to: