Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Deconstructing the latest softball Ratner interview: plans for affordable housing are even shakier than before, and Ratner's tense even with a friendly publication

This New York Observer article, Waiting for Bruce: The Commercial Observer Tours Atlantic Yards Arena, is such a nada-burger that it deserves some off the cuff annotation.

The article is in italics, my commentary not. I'm not sure why it was published other than a generalized desire by the Commercial Observer, which is owned by a real estate mogul, to play nice with Bruce. (Well, here's the justification, I guess: slideshow.)

A chauffered Lexus LS sedan pulled up to the corner of Dean Street and Flatbush Avenue and out slid Bruce Ratner from the back seat. He was 15 minutes late.

In a navy suit with a merino v-neck sweater over a dress shirt with no tie and an open collar, he was also underdresed for the sunny but windy chill swirling across the $1 billion Barclays Center that his firm Forest City Ratner is well into building at the Atlantic Yards site in Brooklyn.

“I thought it was going to be 50 degrees,” Mr. Ratner said, immediately noticing the cold.

This is what's called "setting the scene." But there's not much drama--unless the implicit revelation that Mr. Ratner, is indeed, a warm-blooded animal, or his blatant use of non-public transit. But the writer had to wring out a transition.

So much at the site hasn’t gone according to plan. Mr. Ratner has waded through years of lawsuits launched by landowners who were eventually booted from buildings on the yards via emminent domain, community groups and others that oppose the 22-acre development. If that wasn’t enough, the project, one of the largest developments in city, has had to weather a deep recession and its lingering aftereffects, which have put a damper on demand and pricing for the 16 residential buildings slated for the site.

Emminent domain, indeed. We don't learn that, along with the eminent domain cases, another line of cases challenged the environmental review and, at the last juncture, won a victory, requiring the state to conduct a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS). An appeal will be heard February 14.

Mr. Ratner managed to break ground on the basketball arena – which will be home to the Brooklyn Nets – in 2010, just before tax free bonds the state had permitted him to issue in order to finance the arena’s construction at below-market interest rates were due to expire. 

Well, not exactly. The issuance of the tax-free bonds faced an end-of-2009 deadline. The groundbreaking could come later, which it did. And one of the reasons he managed is that the state chose not to conduct a SEIS, which would have delayed the re-approval of the project until 2010.

The timeline for other components of the project, including the construction of three residential towers that will hug the arena, is less clear.

Not to mention the fourth tower, long slated to house office space and thus "jobs."

“I think we’ll break ground sometime this year,” was all Mr. Ratner would say, referring to the first residential building that is slated to rise at the site, a tower on the corner of Dean and Flatbush whose base will cantilever over a rear entrance to the 14,000 seat Barlcays Center. 

Wait a sec. The arena will house 18,000+ for basketball, and for concerts. The seating area shrinks only for major league hockey. More importantly, Ratner already seems to be stretching the groundbreaking even farther, adding to a string of delays.

The first building will be something of a barometer, Mr. Ratner suggested. The offerings in the other two buildings, he said, be they studios, one bedrooms, or larger apartments, will be based off the market’s reception of the spaces that Forest City Ratner will offer in the first tower.

Y'mean, if market-rate tenants don't want studios and one-bedroom units in the first tower, Ratner will take a risk and build two-bedroom and three-bedroom units in the next two? Doubtful. And if the first building is somewhat successful, that means the configuration, with few larger units, will continue, despite promises in the Community Benefits Agreement to provide larger "affordable" units to help families.

Mr. Ratner bristled when asked to make further reaching projections of progress on the Atlantic Yards site. Standing inside the arena and gazing into its nearly finished bowl of seats, The Commercial Observer’s gaze couldn’t help but trail farther, through a large entryway being used by construction vehicles. Beyond was the rest of the site, a stretch of train tracks and dirt recessed below grade that runs east for several blocks between Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street.

That's not the rest of the site. That's some of the site. There's more site on the block bounded by Carlton and Vanderbilt Avenues, and Dean and Pacific Streets. And on 100 feet east of Sixth Avenue, between Dean and Pacific. And on Site 5, now home to Modell's/P.C. Richard.

“We’re here to talk about the arena,” Mr. Ratner snapped when asked when those portions of the development would begin.

He's snapping now, even when faced with a reporter from a friendly publication? This is reminiscent of his 11/8/09 quotes to another friendly publication, Crain's New York Business, "Why should people get to see plans? This isn't a public project." and “Can you tell me when we are going to need a new office tower?”

One could forgive Mr. Ratner’s edginess given the opposition he has faced. Sensing that he had perhaps recoiled a little too fiercely, his demeanor quickly loosened.

“You have to understand, my words have been twisted around in the past,” Mr. Ratner said.

One might remember all the money Mr. Ratner's been spent on political contributions, public relations, strategic charity, and lobbying. As for twisting his words, he does pretty well on his own, putting his name on a questionable 2008 op-ed for the Daily News.

“And then all of a sudden I’m getting sued,” he added, seeming to refer to a recent suit by a group of workers who claim they were promised union jobs by Forest City Ratner for enrolling in a training program, but subsequently weren’t offered employment.

Well, the Observer might have taken the suit seriously. The promises allegedly were made by FCR's Community Benefits Agreement partner BUILD (Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development).

Mr. Ratner said that the company had studied 16 arenas around the country, specifically Bankers Life Fieldhouse, formerly Conseco Fieldhouse, the home of the Indiana Pacers. The problem with most arenas, such as Madison Square Garden, according to Mr. Ratner is their elevation, which forces the flow of patrons all in one direction and creates congestion.

The court at the Barclays Center is below grade, so when fans enter from ground level, depending on where they sit, they will be split between heading either up or down to their seats.

“We broke up the flow of traffic,” Mr. Ratner said. “At a place like MSG, you have everybody heading up at the start of the game and then down at the end. It creates a jam and it’s confusing. You’re forced to kind of follow the crowd just to know where you’re going.”

Is this all he's got? This is old news. We get it. The arena has some advantages, for arena-goers. The impact on the neighborhood, on the other hand--that's produced a lot of forboding.

Mr. Ratner also pointed out that games will be partially visible from the plaza in front of the arena.

“It’s going to be the only court in the league where you can literally watch the game from the street outside,” Mr. Ratner said, pointing out the arena’s embrace of the surrounding community.

Embracing the community, say, by failing to produce the promised Transportation Demand Management plan remotely on time.

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