Ratner foes have first day in court: The Brooklyn NY Paper, 2/10/07

By Ariella Cohen

A familiar cast of characters clashed in the first courtroom battle over the fate of Atlantic Yards — with opponents saying the project abuses state condemnation powers and a state lawyer retorting that plaintiffs are “naive” to the ways of the world.

The state is allowed to seize private property, but only if it can demonstrate that it is doing so for public benefit. Lawyers for a handful of tenants and building owners in Atlantic Yards’ 22-acre footprint questioned that public benefit.

“If [Bruce] Ratner makes billions of dollars from the development and the city makes [less], then how is his benefit not the primary motive [of condemnation]?” asked Matthew Brinckerhoff, lawyer for Daniel Goldstein, whose apartment building is near center court inside Ratner’s proposed basketball arena.

Empire State Development Corporation lawyer Douglas Kraus scoffed at the plaintiff’s case against the $4-billion, 16-tower residential, office, arena and retail mega-project, calling it “fictional,” “hyperbolic” and “at odds with state law.”

He joked that the case was based on a naïve understanding of “the way things work,” his shorthand for the inner workings of government.

“If this is their approach,” Kraus said, “I would like to talk to [the plaintiffs] about buying stock in that nice bridge I passed on way over here.”

Kraus asked the judge to dismiss the case, though admitted that the amount of tax revenue, the number of affordable units and the number of jobs that will be created by the Ratner’s Xanadu had dropped since the project was introduced.

He said that the changes didn’t alter “the fact that this project would create affordable housing, eliminate blight and bring an arena to Brooklyn.”

The hearing, ostensibly to debate a motion to dismiss the case put forward by Ratner, the city and the state, ended inconclusively with Federal Judge Robert Levy promising to issue a decision “as soon as possible.”

It is unlikely that Levy will dismiss the federal eminent domain complaint, a complicated, case filed by Goldstein, who is also spokesman for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, and 12 other Prospect Heights property owners who believe that their homes are being taken for a development that will primarily benefit Ratner, rather than the public.

Legal experts said that Levy could send the constitutional claim to state court, where most eminent domain complaints are heard.

In New York’s courts, the case could have a harder time because of its judges’ reluctance to rule against other governmental bodies on land-seizure cases, said eminent domain lawyer Robert Goldstein, who is no relation to the plaintiff.

Throughout the four-hour hearing, the players brandished a newfound mastery of arcane legal precedents, but little new insight on the case at hand, known formally as “Goldstein v. Pataki.”

Ratner’s lawyer Jeffrey Braun used the same line of argument that he used in fighting an earlier lawsuit intended to stop the project — namely that Ratner’s mini-city would revitalize a “blighted” area in Prospect Heights, where brownstones sell for more than $1 million.

Braun pleaded with the judge to drop the case as quickly as he could.

“It would be torture to allow this case to move forward,” he said.

Should this case get dismissed, opponents are prepping another battle, this time against the state’s supposedly flawed environmental impact statement.

The Brooklyn NY Paper: http://www.brooklynpaper.com