Tenants Sue Agency Over Brooklyn Project
By ANDY NEWMAN
Published: January 13, 2007, NYTimes.com
Forest City Ratner Companies, the developer of the planned $4 billion Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, has insisted during the long public debate over the project that it will do anything to ensure that displaced residents will not be left out in the cold.
But it has not done enough, say a group of tenants who filed the latest in a series of lawsuits this week, claiming that provisions to relocate tenants of rent-stabilized apartments fall short of the law.
The suit was filed on Wednesday against the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency that shepherded the project to approval last month. The agency has the power to seize property under eminent domain law, and the buildings it plans to condemn for the project include two purchased in recent years by Forest City as it sought to rid its path of obstacles.
Eminent domain law requires the state to certify that all residents of buildings being condemned are being provided new places to live at rents they can afford.
The suit, filed in state court in Brooklyn by 13 tenants of Forest City’s buildings, claims that neither the state agency nor Forest City has provided sufficient guarantees for the tenants and that the relocation program described by the agency has so many conditions and loopholes that it amounts to “a sham.”
The state development corporation said it would not comment on pending litigation. But officials with Forest City, which is not being sued in this case, said their relocation program went far beyond what landlords typically offer tenants they are displacing. Forest City is also The New York Times’s development partner on the newspaper’s new headquarters in Midtown.
The suit was filed by tenants of 473 Dean Street and 634 Pacific Street. Both buildings are just east of Flatbush Avenue, within the project’s footprint. The tenants’ lawyer, George Locker, said on Thursday that they were paying below-market, stabilized rents of $500 to $900 a month.
The suit claims that rather than ensure that there is a “feasible method for relocation” in place to move tenants into suitable apartments nearby, as the law requires, the state agency refers only to an offer by Forest City to provide tenants with apartments in the project once it is completed and to provide the services of a real estate broker to help tenants find interim apartments.
Under the terms cited by the corporation, Forest City would cover the tenants’ moving expenses, pay the difference between their current rent and their new rent at the interim apartment, and provide apartments in the proposed development “at rent levels comparable to their current rents.”
Mr. Locker cited several problems with this offer. One is that it is void if the project is not built. Another is that providing the services of a broker is not the same thing as providing an apartment. Still another, he said, is that the offer of rent stabilization on the apartment in the development is good only for the life of the project’s bonds, 30 years, while a rent-stabilized tenancy typically cannot be terminated except for cause. Finally, Mr. Locker said, the offer cited by the development corporation was never formally made by Forest City.
Mr. Locker added that the eminent domain law spelled out what the development corporation should have done.
“All they had to do was copy four sentences from the statute and say, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ ” Mr. Locker said. “But everything is changed, everything has to be equivocated, and everything is diluted so that people get nothing.”
James P. Stuckey, the Forest City official in charge of Atlantic Yards, said yesterday that the company sent all its tenants a letter in 2005 describing a relocation agreement and instructing them to get in touch if they were interested in it. He said the company chose not to send the agreement itself, unsolicited, lest it be seen as an attempt to intimidate the tenants by treating the project as a settled deal.
The latest version of the agreement, which Mr. Stuckey provided, does include all the offers cited by the development corporation, though it also says that if the landlord of the interim apartment ends the lease, the offer of subsidized rent is void.
Mr. Stuckey said that if the project was eventually not built, “we would no longer have an obligation” because there would no longer be a project plan for Forest City to adhere to. But citing the hundreds of millions of dollars Forest City has put into the project already, he said there was almost no chance that it would simply abandon the project.
One limit of Forest City’s offer is that it does not apply to a tenant who sues the company.
“It is not our intention to fund the lawsuits against us,” Mr. Stuckey said.
Earlier suits have also challenged the project.
The same group of tenants sued the development corporation last month, claiming that it illegally approved the buildings’ condemnation without first obtaining permission from state housing officials to cancel the tenants’ leases.
A broader suit filed in October argues that the state’s planned use of eminent domain is illegal because it would be exercised to benefit a private developer, Forest City, rather than the public good, as the law requires.
The project, planned for a 22-acre site near Downtown Brooklyn, includes 6,400 rental apartments and condominiums, office towers, a basketball arena for the New Jersey Nets and a boutique hotel.
The project was given final approval by another state board last month, and Forest City officials expect to begin work within a few weeks at the site, near the transit hub at Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues.