Friday, February 10, 2006


Nets renegotiating lease, may stay in current arena until 2010

An article today in the Newark Star-Ledger, headlined Nets might stay in N.J. until 2010, describes how the New Jersey Nets may postpone the planned move to Brooklyn for two more years:
With delays mounting for their proposed arena in Brooklyn, the Nets and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority are now in serious negotiations to keep the team at Continental Airlines Arena through the end of the decade.

Nets officials wouldn't comment, but the move has already been delayed once. (So much for conclusory shorthand.) The Star-Ledger adds some reasons:
When Bruce Ratner purchased the Nets in 2004, he had hoped to move the team into a new arena in downtown Brooklyn just months after the current lease at Continental Airlines Arena expired.
However, the Brooklyn arena remains a controversial project whose costs grow with each delay. That arena, which at a cost of nearly $600 million would be the most expensive ever built, is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by a community group that opposes it. In addition, the arena and Ratner's planned development of roughly 5,000 apartments surrounding the building have become bogged down in New York's complicated land use approval process.

Yes, the project remains controversial, and maybe construction costs have increased past the previously announced $555.3 million. The lawsuit is directed at the Atlantic Yards project, not simply the arena, and another legal battle, over eminent domain, is likely.

The Star-Ledger, in July 2003, broke the initial story on the move and sale of the Nets, so the New Jersey reporting here should be taken seriously. Some of the reference to the Brooklyn project, however, contain errors. The development would include 7,300 apartments, not 5,000. The article states that "Ratner won the right last year to purchase the land on which he plans to build the arena from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority," but the arena would spill over from the railyard.

As for "New York's complicated land use approval process," it's a lot less complicated than it could be, since the state project bypasses city rules. The state subsidies are subject to the Public Authorities Control Board, which is controlled by the governor and the respective majority leaders in the state Assembly and Senate.

The buidling of the arena is estimated by the Star-Ledger as "at least a three-year construction process." Let's assume that refers to the arena and first phase of towers, since the second phase, originally scheduled to be complete by 2016, might be pushed back.

But if the Nets do delay the move, what does that mean to the project approval process? Will the Empire State Development Corporation delay the Draft Environmental Impact Statement? Will the city, the state, and the developer work on new means to alleviate traffic congestion?

It also places the litigation over demolitions, scheduled to be heard 2/14/06, in starker relief. As the brief from City Council Member Letitia James states:
[A]llowing FCRC, in effect, to “jump start” the Project by commencing demolition before the SEQRA review has been completed would give the appearance that the project is already going forward, thereby intimidating and squelching legitimate opposition to the Project, and discouraging opponents from participating in the SEQRA process.
...Even if it were ultimately determined that the conditions of some of the 12 buildings at issue truly present a public danger, choosing a less obtrusive action such as repairing and/or shoring up the buildings where necessary, and limiting demolition to only those buildings, if any, that could not be made safe by less drastic means, would send a clear message that the Project’s approval is not a foregone conclusion.

Note that the previous number of buildings was reported as six, but there's an extra building behind 463 Dean Street, and the Underberg Building on Atlantic Avenue (pictured, from Forgotten NY) is six buildings combined and has six addresses.

Also, New Jersey officials are reconsidering the terms of the lease, "which now costs the state some $2 million each year," the Star-Ledger reports, including an obligation to "buy $750,000 of Nets tickets each year. This also sets up a challenge for the new Devils arena in Newark, which had been set to attract all the events previously scheduled for the Continental Airlines Arena.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


The NYTimes sports section: arena a done deal or just maybe?

"Everybody knows where the Nets are going: Brooklyn," declares New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey in today's column, headlined, at least in the print edition, While Nets Are Headed East, Knicks Are Going South.

The shorthand suggests it's a done deal, but many might argue differently, given the yet-to-be-issued Environmental Impact Statement from the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), the likely litigation over the state's need to exercise eminent domain to assemble properties for the Atlantic Yards project, and even the hearing February 14 over developer Forest City Ratner's aim to demolish several properties in the project footprint.

And the Times itself hedges on its Sports homepage, previewing Vecsey's column with the sentence (emphasis added): The Nets may be moving to Brooklyn, but at least they still have talent and hope, unlike the Knicks.

Listening to readers?

As Eric McClure of Brooklyn wrote Vecsey today:
If the citizens of this borough have their say, the Nets will be going anywhere but. There are more than a few of us here who are opposed to handing a billionaire team owner a couple billion more in tax breaks and subsidies, opposed to giving him private land seized through the abuse of eminent domain, and opposed to letting him steal a publicly owned rail yard with the lowest bid. Not to mention all of the closed-door, back-room dealing and the web of cozy mutual back-scratching with his politician-accomplices. As bad as the Knicks are, they don't stink nearly as much as what Bruce Ratner is trying to put over on the taxpayers of Brooklyn, New York City and New York State.
(McClure wrote in his personal capacity, but he is also the Atlantic Yards Campaign Chair for Park Slope Neighbors.)

Perhaps other readers--and possibly, even Times staffers--might have informed Vecsey that his column was conclusory.

Vecsey's column also ends with another error, locating the arena in Downtown Brooklyn: The Nets are playing in an arena surrounded by new parking garages for an amusement park that will be built before they split for downtown Brooklyn. The Knicks are staying in Midtown Manhattan, but otherwise their future is fuzzy and bleak.

More about that litigation

Several community groups and residents have sued Forest City Ratner and the ESDC to block the planned demolitions, and this week three elected officials--City Council Member Letitia James, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, and Rep. Major Owens--have joined the case, as have four rent-stabilized tenants from a building a short way down the block from some buildings planned for demolition.

The motion to intervene on behalf of those tenants, from South Brooklyn Legal Services, points out that the ESDC approved the demolitions based on a report by Forest City Ratner's engineering consultant, even though evidence from city agencies should have given the state agency pause:
The agency should have conducted an independent investigation and not relied exclusively on a report commissioned by the developer. Had the agency even perused publicly available records pertaining to the buildings, it would have discovered that the two New York City agencies empowered to order the demolition of unsafe structures, the Department of Buildings and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, have inspected at least four of the buildings since 9/04 and at no point thought it necessary to order their demolition on the grounds that they were unsafe or in imminent danger of collapse.
For example, the Department of Buildings (DoB) visited 608 Atlantic Ave. in 9/04 and issued a violation for improper signage, see Exhibit E; in 1/05 DoB visited 463 Dean St. and 585 Dean St. and issued a boiler violation, see Exhibit E; and, fantastically, in 7/05 the Department of Housing Preservation and Development visited 463 Dean St. and, upon information and belief, issued no immediately hazardous (code `C’) violations. See Exhibit F.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Two commercial real estate firms, the MTA, and inevitable Forest City Ratner ties

The 2/7/06 Brooklyn Eagle, in an article headlined MTA Names Real Estate Firm Advisors (registration required) reports:
Two real estate firms active in the Brooklyn commercial property market have been retained by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to assess the MTA’s real estate portfolio and create and execute a program to maximize the properties’ revenue potential. Massey Knakal Realty Services and CB Richard Ellis (CBRE) have been retained as part of the MTA’s efforts to generate additional revenue for essential capital improvements and operational needs. The portfolio is expected to include more than 14,000 properties. The selection of Massey Knakal and CBRE was made following a Request For Proposals process that began in 2004.

Could the MTA, in an effort to maximize its properties' revenue potential, consider reopening the bid for the Vanderbilt Yard? Remember, the agency accepted Forest City Ratner's $100 million offer for the site, a key part of the Atlantic Yards project, even though an appraiser said the land was worth $214.5 million and rival bidder Extell offered $150 million. MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow dismissed the agency's own appraiser as "some guy."

It's doubtful that the two real estate agencies would offer that advice. Both have business relationships with Forest City Ratner--probably inevitable with such a major developer--and one has a particularly close relationship.

Massey Knakal brokered a deal to sell a residential development site at 585 Dean Street "in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights" to Forest City Ratner as part of the Atlantic Yards project, according to the firm's newsletter.

Ratner, the Times, and CBRE

The business relationship with CB Richard Ellis, and especially CEO Mary Ann Tighe, is closer. CBRE is the exclusive leasing agent for the office portion of the proposed Ridge Hill Village development in Yonkers, NY.

Tighe served as agent for Forest City Ratner on leasing of the Bank of New York tower at Forest City Ratner’s Atlantic Terminal mall in Brooklyn. Also, representing the New York Times Company, Tighe, according to the firm web site, "arranged a network of joint ventures enabling the construction of a new 1.5 million square foot tower at 8th Avenue and 41st Street...The transaction included a joint venture between NYTC and developer Forest City Ratner (FCR), which becomes 2 condominium interests upon construction completion..."

As noted in Chapter 8 of my report, in a 1/22/04 profile of Bruce Ratner, the New York Times quoted praise of Ratner from Tighe but did not mention the real estate agent's connections to the Times or to Ratner. A 12/10/03 New York Sun profile noted: "After she helped pick Mr. Ratner [while working for the Times], she hopped over to his team, where she’s representing the company on the Times project, as well as some of its Brooklyn properties. Also, the Brooklyn Papers reported 8/21/04 that Tighe is a member of the investment group that Ratner assembled to buy the New Jersey Nets and move them to Brooklyn.

Monday, February 06, 2006


Curious FCR omission in Times story about Senegal-to-NYC rower

The Times today ran an 1,190-word story about Victor Mooney, a Brooklyn man who's working on a rowboat he plans to row from Senegal to New York to raise consciousness about AIDS. But there was no mention of corporate contributor Forest City Ratner, the company mentioned at the top of the Goree Challenge home page.

The article, headlined A Slow, Solo Crossing of the Atlantic Is One Man's Response to the AIDS Crisis, acknowledges some corporate donors:
He eventually approached more than 70 companies for help, nearly all of it in-kind. Snapple made his only cash donation so far, for $5,000. Mr. Mooney needs to raise $30,000 more to pay off the boat kit and cover his expenses during journey, which he expects will take seven months. Whatever he raises above that will go to charity.
The United Parcel Service offered to ship the finished boat to Senegal. A Lowe's in Brooklyn pitched in thousands of dollars' worth of tools, while West Marine, a marine equipment supplier, contributed radios, fittings and other electronics. West System, another supplier, gave Mr. Mooney rolls of fiberglass cloth and nearly 100 gallons of epoxy and glue.

The quote on the Goree Challenge homepage:
"I'm proud to be helping Mooney. We wish him well in his mission and journey."
Bruce Ratner, Chairman and CEO of Forest City Ratner Companies and Principal Owner of New Jersey Nets

Space from Forest City Ratner

Forest City Ratner, as the Courier-Life chain reported 9/29/05 in an article headlined Brooklyn Iron Man Prepares to Row the Atlantic, has donated the space where Mooney works. It's a building the developer controls and would later demolish for the Atlantic Yards project. Mooney's web site calls it "the Atlantic Yards Boathouse," which furthers the notion that Atlantic Yards is a place rather than a project.

Why leave Forest City Ratner out of the article? It's a judgment call, and not an easy one. Is the donation of a work space more worthy of mention than the donation of supplies? Maybe the omission was a question of space, and that paragraph got cut from the final version of the article.

Maybe a mention of Forest City Ratner would require the Times to publish--or at least consider publishing--the disclosure that the parent Times Company has a business relationship with the developer. And that disclosure might distract from an article about fight against AIDS, which has little to do with Forest City Ratner.

However, given that Forest City Ratner gains such a prominent spot on the Goree Project's home page, that the donation of the space was highlighted in a press release and local news coverage, that the construction space is called the Atlantic Yards Boathouse, and that local charitable donations have been part of the Forest City Ratner community strategy, I'd say that, on balance, a mention was in order.


Too tall and too dense? Atlantic Yards, Downtown Brooklyn, and the elusive FAR

What's the appropriate height and density for the Atlantic Yards project or, for that matter, any other project built on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard and environs? There are no rules, since there's been no rezoning for the Atlantic Yards project (despite what the New York Times said and has yet to correct), and the state can override zoning. (Map is from Jon Keegan.)

Density involves Floor Area Ratio (FAR), which the city defines as "the total floor area on a zoning lot divided by the lot area of that zoning lot. For example, a building containing 20,000 square feet of floor area on a zoning lot of 10,000 square feet has a floor area ratio of 2.0." Architect Jonathan Cohn did the math and calculated a proposed FAR (roughly: building area divided by site area) of 9.5. (That would include 11 buildings over 400 feet.) As I note below, Forest City Ratner VP Jim Stuckey recently said that the FAR would be 8 to 8.5.

The figure reaches 11 if the streets taken by the project are subtracted, and perhaps tops 12 if the low-rise arena is subtracted. That's comparable to the plans at the World Trade Center site and, more relevantly, blocks at the core of the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning. See the tan blocks in the center marked C6-4.5. Note also that the Atlantic Terminal site (mall/office building), at the southeast edge of the map at right, is also at 10 FAR (C6-4). Note that the Atlantic Terminal mall is in the northwest corner of the map two paragraphs below portraying the Atlantic Yards site plan.

But only part of the rezoned Downtown Brooklyn has an FAR that reaches 12, and Downtown Brooklyn is not a low-rise residential district. Another comparison might be the extensive rezoning of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, where a recent rezoning proposed waterfront development parcels with districts of 2.43 FAR and 6.02 FAR to produce an FAR of 4.3, which itself is greater than the neighborhoods to the south, east, and north of the Atlantic Yards site.

Downtown Brooklyn or Prospect Heights?

That raises the question: is the Atlantic Yards site more like dense Downtown Brooklyn, or is it in fact in less-dense Prospect Heights? City officials and Forest City Ratner often describe it as Downtown Brooklyn--the original FCR press release on 12/10/03 stated: Frank Gehry, internationally acclaimed architect, unveils vision for world-class basketball arena and mixed-use complex for downtown Brooklyn. But downtown Brooklyn has historically not crossed Atlantic Avenue, and barely crossed Flatbush Avenue, if at all. The Department of City Planning describes it as "[g]enerally bounded by Tillary Street to the north, Ashland Place to the east, Atlantic Center and Schermerhorn Street to the south, and Court Street to the west." The Atlantic Center mall is north of Atlantic Avenue, but east of Flatbush, as is the Atlantic Terminal mall.

Also note that one triangle of land, at the southeast tip of the proposed Downtown Brooklyn rezoning, was subtracted from the rezoning because it would be the northwest tip of the Atlantic Yards project. This segment is arguably the part of the Atlantic Yards project that might be considered Downtown Brooklyn.

An authoritative book, The Neighborhoods of Brooklyn, describes the Atlantic Center Mall as being in Fort Greene and says that the western border of Prospect Heights is Flatbush Avenue and the northern border Atlantic Avenue. And the New York Times, in a 12/18/05 Real Estate section profile of Prospect Heights, mapped out the neighborhood in the graphic at right.

Forest City Ratner VP Jim Stuckey, at an 11/22/05 presentation before the American Institute of Architects, described the density as 8 to 8.5 FAR. "The overall density, across this entire project, to be built to exactly what’s proposed today, would be roughly eight to an eight and a half FAR," he said, according to a tape of the meeting. "Which while it looks to people thinking of a large amount of space, in fact, in the adjacent Downtown Brooklyn plan, which was approved not too long ago, the density in that plan ranged from an 8 to a 10 FAR....The density of this project is really not all that different than what recently went through the public approval process."

But Downtown Brooklyn is not Prospect Heights, a mostly residential district which borders low-rise residential districts. And it's not clear whether Stuckey was describing the average density in the Downtown Brooklyn plan. The rezoning actually reaches an FAR of 12 on some blocks, but other blocks retain densities of 2, 4, and 6 FAR.

I asked Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development about the right comparision for the Atlantic Yards site. He observed, "It is very difficult to say. Of course, people who live immediately adjacent to the site have a reasonable point that they think the relevant comparison is their own, immediately adjacent blocks (which have average FAR of 2.5-4). Essentially, the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards plan would extend downtown Brooklyn much further to the east than most people would say it currently goes." (The photo above, at the corner of Dean Street and Sixth Avenue, contains buildings that would be within the project footprint and thus demolished.)

Indeed, is Vanderbilt Avenue, the eastern border of the Atlantic Yards footprint, part of Downtown Brooklyn? Look at the map above. There is an argument, however, for increased density in the northwest tip of the Atlantic Yards footprint, where the Williamsburg Savings Bank is 512 feet, as well as along the northern border, the south side of the wide Atlantic Avenue, which has some tall buildings, 15-30 stories, along its north side, including the Bank of New York tower at the Atlantic Terminal mall.

What density suggests

An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) from the Empire State Development Corporation is expected in the next few months. Lander observed, "One challenge is the FAR is really relevant for two totally different things: context/urban design, and infrastructure. Context/urban design is really a matter of taste: what you like, want to look at, and want to live near, so it is difficult to give an objective basis for comparison or analysis. Infrastructure is more objective: how much traffic, transit, weight, energy, water, waste, schoolkids, etc. can an area handle and still function well. This is why a genuine EIS, with good scrutiny and real analysis, alternatives review, mitigation, etc. is so important."

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