Clearing of Atlantic Yards’ Site Proceeds as Legal Thicket Grows Denser
By ANDY NEWMAN
Published: April 5, 2007, NYTimes.com
Out on the cold damp streets of Brooklyn, work on the Atlantic Yards project is under way, and you don’t even need to peek through a knothole to see it.
In the raw drizzle yesterday, a man and a woman in blue hazardous-material suits ducked in and out of the former headquarters of the Tasty Provision Company on Pacific Street. They were removing asbestos from the building in preparation for its demolition.
Across the street, in the Long Island Rail Road yards that give the mammoth $4-billion-dollar project its name, a raked expanse of dirt testified to the recent removal of an old bus parking lot.
But even as preliminary work proceeds on one of the biggest construction projects in the city’s history, new questions are being raised by Atlantic Yards’ opponents, new facts brought to the surface and new suits filed in courts across the city. All are aimed at forcing the developer, Forest City Ratner, to substantially scale back its plans, which currently call for erecting 8 million square feet of high-rise housing, office space and a basketball arena on a 22-acre swath near Downtown Brooklyn.
Much of the wrangling, not surprisingly, revolves around money. More than three months after the state approved the project, some questions remain unanswered, some numbers unknown. Without knowing the figures, critics of the project say, it is impossible to have a discussion about how big the project needs to be.
In the budget it unveiled in January, for example, the Bloomberg administration quietly doubled its direct subsidy to the project area, to $205 million from $100 million. The difference is bigger than the entire annual budget of the city Buildings Department.
“Are these subsidies that help put the developer over the top so that he can build the project?” asked Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. which opposes the scale of the plan, “Or are they to help him make a superprofit, as we suspect?”
Then there are the lawsuits — at least four.
The most recent was filed last month by Assemblyman James F. Brennan, who is trying to force a state agency that approved the project, the Empire State Development Corporation, to release any Forest City business plan for Atlantic Yards that it has.
The agency denied his earlier requests, he said, on the grounds that the plan consisted of “interagency materials” not subject to the Freedom of Information Law. Early this year, Mr. Brennan said, officials at the agency conceded to him that they did not have a financial plan for the project. They had relied, they said, on an analysis done by auditors that were unable to persuade Forest City to reveal its complete financial plan, either.
Mr. Brennan characterized the information vacuum as bizarre, as well as in violation of an agreement that directed Forest City to submit its business plan to the authorities.
A spokesman for the Empire State Development Commission, Errol Cockfield, took mild issue with Mr. Brennan’s complaints yesterday. “We did not receive a document labeled ‘financial plan,’ but the information we received, taken together, constitutes a financial plan,” he said.
He added that he did not mean to get bogged down in semantics. “The important distinction,” he said, “ is to point out that the project was approved by the previous administration, not this administration. The horse has left the barn.”
Mr. Brennan said it was not too late, though, to lessen the project’s impact on nearby neighborhoods.
“Even though the project has been approved,” he said, “we face a 10-to-15-year window for implementation, and the information is relevant for many years to come in any discussion about amendments or modifications to the plan.”
He added, “How do you know what alternatives and mitigations are possible if you don’t know what’s financially feasible?”
A spokesman for Forest City, Loren Riegelhaupt, said that the company was “not able to make our business plan public” for “proprietary reasons.”
The filing of another lawsuit is planned today in State Supreme Court in Manhattan by a coalition of opponents challenging the environmental impact statement that the authorities used in evaluating the proposed project. Mr. Goldstein of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn said that the development corporation had failed to adequately consider traffic problems and security concerns that the project would raise, among other things.
Another suit, a constitutional challenge in federal court by tenants and property owners aimed at halting the condemnation of buildings on the project site under eminent domain, was deemed a matter for state court by a magistrate judge in February. But last Friday, the federal judge who has control of the case heard several hours of arguments on whether to keep the case in federal court.
Even the work being done on the site now is being duly litigated. George Locker, a lawyer for several residents, said he would take the state development corporation to court next week claiming it was flouting a requirement to have an independent environmental monitor on hand.
Mr. Cockfield, the development corporation spokesman, said that providing a monitor for the asbestos work, at least, was Forest City’s job. Mr. Riegelhaupt of Forest City said that the company did have an air monitor on the site.
Not every interaction between Forest City and the government has been condemned by the Atlantic Yards’ critics. Yesterday, Norman Oder, who runs a blog devoted to Atlantic Yards issues, noted approvingly that the state development corporation had closed its local office on the ghostly third floor of Forest City’s Atlantic Center mall, for which the agency had been paying Forest City $30,000 a year.
The community offices “weren’t getting too much foot traffic,” Mr. Cockfield said. “They weren’t worth the taxpayer investment to keep them open.”