A Nod for Atlantic Yards, and Then a Lawsuit
By NICHOLAS CONFESSORE
Published: December 9, 2006, NYTimes.com
The board of the state agency sponsoring the proposed Atlantic Yards project near Downtown Brooklyn voted unanimously yesterday to approve it, while also voting to authorize any building condemnations that may be required.
Within hours of the vote, 13 tenants living in two buildings on the proposed project site filed suit against the agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, charging that the board had authorized the buildings’ condemnation without permission from state housing officials to erase the tenants’ rent-stabilized leases.
The buildings, at 473 Dean Street and 624 Pacific Street, were bought in the last two years by the project’s developer, Forest City Ratner, which is also the development partner in building a new Midtown headquarters for The New York Times Company.
The 22-acre residential and commercial project in Brooklyn, which would include a basketball arena for the Nets, still faces a final decision by the state’s Public Authorities Control Board, and any condemnations would not happen immediately if approval is given.
But George S. Locker, a lawyer for the tenants, said that Forest City and the development agency’s chairman, Charles A. Gargano, who presided over yesterday’s vote, had deliberately misled the tenants about the potential for condemnation.
“His public statements about eminent domain, and Forest City Ratner’s, have in common that they were both dishonest and deceptive,” Mr. Locker said, “and they were both designed to give reassurances about the noncondemnation of tenants when in fact that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
It would be up to a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan, where the suit was filed, to decide what legal import Mr. Gargano’s comments have. But even by the standards of development-speak, where hyperbolic promises and grand rhetorical gestures are the norm, some of those comments have left allies and opponents alike perplexed.
Last May, Mr. Gargano suggested that the condemnations had already occurred, telling a reporter that the development agency “didn’t need to use eminent domain” and that “the amount of condemnation that we had to do was very small.”
During a subsequent television appearance, Mr. Gargano characterized the condemnations that might occur as “friendly,” meaning unchallenged, though several apartment owners have long said that they planned to fight the condemnations in court. (Under the state’s eminent domain law, the condemnations of the Pacific and Dean Street buildings would be friendly because Forest City Ratner owns them, not the tenants; Mr. Locker argues that housing laws nevertheless give the tenants rights ignored by the development agency.)
On a radio program on Thursday, a day before the vote on future condemnations, Mr. Gargano seemed to indicate that no such decision would be made. “There is nothing about that tomorrow,” he said in an interview on WNYC.
Asked about those statements at a news conference yesterday, Mr. Gargano grew testy and denied that he had made them. When the statements were read to him, he suggested that he had been misheard. Later in the day, he called this reporter to clarify his previous comments.
“Obviously, I knew very clearly that this project had not yet used condemnation,” Mr. Gargano said. “And I have known from the beginning that if they had to use condemnation, it would be very small.”
He declined to comment directly on the new lawsuit yesterday.
The board meeting itself was largely anticlimactic. In approving the project, the board formalized a reduction in the project’s size, to 8 million from 8.7 million square feet — about the size of the original plan unveiled in 2003. The slightly lower price tag, at slightly less than $4 billion, will still be significantly higher than originally projected.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki both issued statements praising the board’s vote, as did James P. Stuckey, the Forest City official in charge of the project, who said it offered “very real benefits for Brooklyn,” like jobs and housing.
Supporters and opponents have already turned their focus to a coming vote by the Public Authorities Control Board, which will have the final say. The votes on that board are controlled equally by the Republican governor; Sheldon Silver, the Democratic Assembly speaker; and Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican Senate majority leader.
All three publicly support the project, but Mr. Silver and Mr. Pataki have clashed over other large development efforts. The project’s supporters are worried that Mr. Silver will decide to postpone the vote, as yet unscheduled, until next year, when Eliot Spitzer will be the governor.
Mr. Gargano said yesterday that he was confident that the project would be approved by the Public Authorities Control Board by the end of the year. He said his staff members had been involved in discussions with Mr. Silver’s and Mr. Bruno’s staff members. “They are given all of the information they possibly need,” Mr. Gargano said.
Many community groups, local and national civic organizations, and some elected officials continued yesterday to call on Albany officials to delay final approval of the project until questions about its financing and environmental impact were resolved.