In Push for Atlantic Yards Project, State Touts Eminent Domain: New York (NY) Sun, 7/19/06

By David Lombino

The state [of New York] yesterday released thousands of pages of documents in which it outlined its justification for the use of eminent domain and for overriding local zoning laws to clear the way for the 22-acre Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn.

A "blight study" released as part of the state's general project plan said "public action" would be required to improve the area around the Vanderbilt rail yards, which is "characterized by blighted conditions including structurally unsound buildings, debris-filled vacant lots, environmental concerns, high crime rates, and underutilization."

The causes of the area's blight include the presence of the rail yards and a "diversity of ownership" that "hindered site assemblage that is necessary for redevelopment," according to the state's study.

Opponents of the project, including neighbors who say the proposed density will destroy the neighborhood, are expected to mount a legal challenge to any condemnation of private property necessary to complete the project.

A lawyer for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, Jeffrey Baker, called state's finding of blight "an artificial construct," and said it is likely to be central to litigation brought by opponents.

"The private redevelopment effort in that area came to a screeching halt after December '03, when they announced this project," Mr. Baker said.

The state's general project plan details the need for eminent domain to clear as many as 22 different tax lots, containing both commercial and residential property — and about 118 people — that remain in the project's footprint but have not sold to the developer. The existence of blight will likely be used as the state's rationale for using eminent domain to condemn the remaining properties, as well as circumventing the city's land use approval process, which would ordinarily prohibit a project of the density proposed for Atlantic Yards.

The plan and a draft environmental impact statement were released by the leading state development agency yesterday for developer Forest City Ratner's proposal to build basketball arena and 16 towers containing more than 2,300 market rate condominiums, 4,500 rental apartments, and office and retail space in Prospect Heights.

The state's plan said the project would cost $4.2 billion, $700 million more than expected. Cost estimates had already risen to $3.5 billion from $2.5 billion. The latest increase is due to rising construction, interest, and fuel costs and more accurate estimates, according to an executive for Forest City Ratner, James Stuckey.

The developer also faced unexpected costs acquiring the private land around the site to "minimize the amount of condemnation involved in the project," Mr. Stuckey said. He would not say how much money the developer would profit from the proposal.

The draft EIS and general project plan will go before a public hearing on August 23 and a "community forum" on September 12. A final plan and EIS will be prepared by the state after consideration of all comments. Before construction can commence, state officials and the Public Authorities Control Board must approve those final documents, and any legal challenges must be cleared. The state's study said the arena would be completed by October 2009. The project would not be fully built out until 2016.

A spokesman for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn, Daniel Goldstein, who owns a condominium in the project's footprint and has vowed a legal fight, said yesterday that 60 days is not enough time to prepare for the public hearing. He said the documents released today were riddled with inaccuracies, including the estimates for the project's public cost and benefits.

"Any politician or elected official who is going to stand by this document with a straight face is a lunatic," Mr. Goldstein said.

Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg cite job growth and the creation of affordable housing as reasons for their support of the project.

Yesterday, the state said the development would support an annual average of 6,573 new jobs in New York City and generate $1.1 billion in city and state tax revenues. The city and state have agreed to provide $100 million each for the project.

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