Crowd to Ratner big: ‘Blight’ back at ya

The Brooklyn Paper
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As if opponents of Forest City Ratner’s “Atlantic Yards” plan didn’t already have enough reasons to dislike him, a top official of the development company has taken to labeling as “blighted” the six square blocks of Prospect Heights that the project would subsume.

At the second public meeting in two weeks, Forest City Ratner Executive Vice President James Stuckey said he expected the state to determine land in the footprint of the Atlantic Yards site to be “blighted,” a move that would allow his company to forcibly purchase the property from individual owners for a price determined by the state.

And with each mention of the word, Stuckey was greeted by a chorus of jeers.

The development company’s principal owner, Bruce Ratner, proposes to build a $2.5 billion complex on property bounded by Flatbush, Atlantic and Vanderbilt avenues and Dean Street — including Pacific Street — that would include a basketball arena for his New Jersey Nets and 17 buildings including four office skyscrapers and 13 apartment and commercial buildings.

Up to 11 acres of private property in that area could be condemned.

At the Nov. 29 informational meeting, jointly hosted by the three community boards whose districts include portions of the Atlantic Yards site — CB2, CB6 and CB8 — at New York City College of Technology downtown, Stuckey addressed the ways in which the state’s eminent domain law could help his company acquire private property — a mix of condominiums, co-ops, apartment buildings, commercial property and vacant lots — whether the owner is willing to sell or not.

Ratner has been able to make most of the condo owners offers they could not refuse, reportedly paying well above market value for all but four apartments in two buildings.

Under eminent domain, however, the bulk of the private property in the site can be condemned if deemed eligible by the state to be developed for “public use,” as spelled out in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, provided owners are given “just compensati­on.”

The topic was referred to at the meeting in a question-and-answer period with Stuckey during which the issue of a pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling on eminent domain was raised.

In that case, a woman in New London, Conn., and several of her neighbors have challenged that city’s findings that property on which their houses stand can be taken to make way for a Pfizer office building under the determination that economic development, or higher tax revenue, could constitute public use. The Supreme Court is expected to hear the New London case this spring.

Addressing the audience questions about whether or not he thought the neighborhood was “blighted” — a term often used to justify urban renewal in low-income areas — and if the Connecticut case would have bearing in Brooklyn, Stuckey said the two examples of eminent domain were unrelated.

“That case has no bearing, I believe, on what will happen here, because the case here follows by what the Empire State Development Corporation [the state agency that would sponsor the project and enforce condemnations], and state and city determine based on this case, and the number of findings of, yes, blight,” Stuckey said.

Audience members responded with a chorus of catcalls shouting, “We’re not blighted!”

“You’re blighted!” one woman shouted at Stuckey.

New York State’s eminent domain law does not, in fact, require a determination of blight in order to condemn land for public use, according to a study released by the Institute for Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm that is representing the New London residents. New York is one of only seven states in the country (along with Connecticut) that allows condemnations for private business development alone, an institute lawyer said.

The probing by some community members at Monday night’s meeting came on the heels of information released this week by Forest City Ratner that, after months of negotiations to buy up private land in the footprint of the proposed arena site, the company had purchased 48 of the 52 condo units in two of the larger lofts buildings.

There are 69 co-op and condo units in the Atlantic Yards footprint, said a Forest City Ratner spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, other questioners raised two issues, based on an exclusive report in last week’s Brooklyn Papers — that a substantial amount of property was still held by commercial landowners, some of whom have vowed not to sell to Ratner, and that developer Shaya Boymelgreen has a deal with one of those property owners to develop his own residential-commercial buildings within the Atlantic Yards site.

After the meeting, Stuckey seemed less than pleased by the line of questioning about the commercial property and Boymelgreen.

Stuckey told The Brooklyn Papers: “As you reported on June 16 — I have the paper in my office — we said we were going to do everything we could to limit the amount of residential condemnation, whether it be condos or rentals, and we’ve done it. And now that we’ve done it, all of a sudden the story changes.

“People who are against the project are now saying, ‘Well, we want to talk about commercial. We want to talk about a handful of lot owners that have owned vacant buildings, that have all of a sudden gotten religion, and now they want to build residential,” Stuckey told The Papers.

Declaring blight, however, could insure that, regardless of the outcome of the New London case, Atlantic Yards condemnations could proceed.

While some define “public use” as projects like highways, parks and public schools, Columbia University Law professor Thomas W. Merrill said the basketball arena could also qualify.

“The stadium will be open to the public, that’s a legitimate purpose for eminent domain,” he said.

Institute of Justice lawyer Bert Gall, who is part of the Connecticut residents’ legal team, said the challenge lies in what is meant by the term “public use.”

“Public use has been used for over 150 years in this country and the courts, and most people today, when they talk about eminent domain it means a bridge or a road or a courthouse — it’s something the public can own and use,” said Gall. “It doesn’t mean a condo and It doesn’t mean a stadium, or something where a private owner has it and uses it for his benefit.”

Gall said the proposed Atlantic Yards condemnations appeared to be as much for economic development purposes as those in the New London case.

“It’s just the same, but it’s dressed up as blight,” he said. “Most cases of blight we see are pretty flimsy.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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