Watchdog calls for arena ‘ULURP’

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Saying the appointed state officials who will review Bruce Ratner’s $2.5 billion Atlantic Yards arena, office tower and housing plan are not accountable to the public, a government watchdog group is calling for the plan to be put through city review.

“Such a big and important project should go though the same process that any other development would normally go through,” Gene Russianoff, a senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), said this week.

The city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) requires the recommendations of, and public hearings before, the local community board, borough president, City Planning Commission and City Council.

Ever since the project — which would build 2.4 million square feet of new office and retail space, approximately 4,500 units of housing and an arena to house Ratner’s New Jersey Nets — was announced last December, the developer has said the state would take the lead as both co-applicant and arbiter.

“The usual process gives the mayor and council final say, and that both holds them accountable and empowers them to represent the constituen­ts,” said Russianoff.

Instead of elected officials, if the project goes to the state, an Empire State Development Corporation-appointed board would be making the decisions, said Russianoff.

“Nobody knows their names and faces. Should they be making decisions? We say, ‘No,’” he said.

Instead of the city’s rigorous review process, most of the public review for the arena plan will be conducted at the state level, and only require one public hearing, according to Russianoff.

Developed as a project of the Empire State Development Corporation, Atlantic Yards would be subject only to environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), a process that involves much less public scrutiny than does ULURP.

Through a spokesman, Councilman David Yassky, whose Brownstone Brooklyn district abuts the proposed arena, agreed with Russianoff. “It should go through an intensive city screening process. The state process is simply not going to be enough to fully examine the project,” said his spokesman, Evan Thies.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, called it “outrageous” that the project would likely skirt city review.

“There’s something outrageous about this combination of power — the sate can condemn private property and then not subject any of its decisions to public review,” Vitullo-Martin said.

The ability to override city review dates back to the days of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who created the Urban Development Corporation, now known as the Empire Sate Development Corporation, she noted.

“He wanted to evade community review because he believed communities would oppose many of the projects he wanted to impose on them,” said Vitullo-Martin.

Rockefeller was governor from 1959 to 1973. The Urban Development Corporation could override local zoning, condemn property and create creative financing schemes to carry out its development.

The current Atlantic Yards project would stretch from Flatbush Avenue to Vanderbilt Avenue between Atlantic Avenue and Dean Street.
Ratner does not own any of that land.

He needs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to sell him the rights to build over the Long Island Rail Road storage yard on the site. He also needs the Empire State Development Corporation to sign on as lead agency for the project, enabling it to force property owners in the path of the plan to sell their property under the state’s power of eminent domain.

Gov. George Pataki, a friend of Ratner’s dating back to their days attending Columbia University Law School together, has appointing authority over both the MTA and ESDC boards.

NYPIRG is also asking for an independent appraiser to set the price for the air rights to build over the rail yards.

“MTA should get fair market value for the site,” said Rusianoff. Prospect Heights Councilwoman Letitia James has repeatedly asked the MTA to put the property up to a bidding process.

Daniel Goldstein, a spokesman for Develop-Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a group of residents opposed to the plan, said he was pleased to see the show of support from NYPIRG.

“Develop-Don’t Destroy has been pushing and asking for this development proposal to go through ULURP since December. We will support any group that is calling for the same thing,” Goldstein said.

“We are calling on City Council members to keep their rights of oversight of this project,” he added.

While land use oversight is still one of the few powers afforded to borough presidents, when asked about the NYPIRG statement, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who spearheaded the arena project and has been its most vocal cheerleader, simply said it was a state project and “ULURP is not applicable.”

“However, I am confident that there will be meaningful community participation that will no doubt improve this plan and make it a win-win for both the neighborhood and for all of Brooklyn,” Markowitz said.

Asked about the role of City Planning, Rachaele Raynoff, a spokeswoman for the agency, said, “When state MTA land is involved, the state has jurisdicti­on.”

Several actions called for in the project, including rezoning and street demapping, would norally go through ULURP.

NYPIRG, which came out this week against the Jets Stadium on the west side of Manhattan, has not taken a position on the Atlantic Yards project itself.

The NBA board of governors is expected to approve Ratner’s $300 million purchase of the Nets by the end of June. After that, the developer is expected top move swiftly to get the project off the ground.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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