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A community garden on Flatbush Avenue has become the latest pawn in an ongoing battle over developer Bruce Ratner’s plans to build a massive basketball arena and office tower complex across the street in Prospect Heights.

Named for a teddy bear found on the site, the Bear’s Garden was started by a group of neighborhood residents more than 20 years ago. The group turned a paved parking lot into an 8,000-square-foot green garden of Japanese maples, peach trees and tomato plants.

But in 1996, Ratner had most of the lot plowed to make way for a Modell’s sporting goods store and PC Richards electronics store after acquiring the site — bordered by Pacific Street and Flatbush, Fourth and Atlantic avenues — from the city.

As part of a deal brokered between Ratner and the gardeners, then-Borough President Howard Golden put up $250,000 from his budget and Ratner agreed to hand over a 5,000-square-foot plot of the property. Ratner also agreed to convey the garden site to a public trust within 180 days, according to a lease signed on July 16, 1998.

“We’ve been patient for six years and we’re still waiting for this to go through,” said Jon Crow, a coordinator for the garden.
According to Crow, Ratner told the gardeners he could not convey the land because his “bank loans did not contain the necessary stipulation to release the garden property from the loan documents.”

And now, Crow says, Ratner is willing to release the land to the Trust for Public Land, a national non-profit conservation organization, but insists on holding onto the air rights over the land.

Those transferable development rights would enable Ratner to build taller buildings on the Modell’s and PC Richards properties than current zoning allows. The garden sits across Flatbush Avenue from where Ratner plans to build a 620-foot office building, towering over the Williamsburg Bank building, currently the tallest building in Brooklyn.

That tower is part of Ratner’s $2.5 billion Atlantic Yards project, which would include an arena to house the New Jersey Nets basketball team and 17 residential and office towers.

“Forest City Ratner was glad to partner with the community to preserve Bear’s Garden, that’s why for years we’ve provided the garden with free electricity and water, kept their sidewalks clean, and worked with the borough president on the fencing,” said Ratner spokeswoman Beth Davidson.

“As planned, we fully intend to turn the garden over to the trust,” Davidson added.

She declined to comment on the issue of the air rights.

Andy Stone, director of New York City programs for the Trust for Public Land, which has been involved in the Bear’s Garden negotiations from the beginning, declined to comment on many of the details.

“We’ve been involved, but we always try not to serve as an advocate, but as an intermedia­ry,” Stone said.

During the season, gardeners grow corn, tomatoes, basil and other herbs. The garden also has three gold fish, a barbecue and a shaded seating area.

“We made sure that it’s accessible to the community so anybody who wants a key can get one,” said Crow, who paused before adding, “except for Ratner.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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