City follows Ratner lead

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Just weeks after Atlantic Yards developer Bruce Ratner floated a plan to trim the size of his 8.65-million-square-foot mega-project by 6- to 8 percent, the City Planning Commission rubberstamped that notion on Wednesday.

The commission’s recommended 8-percent trim would return the project to its originally proposed size — a far cry from the 30- to 50-percent reduction sought by critics, who accused the commission of doing Ratner’s bidding.

“A lot of this was precooked,” a real estate executive who works with Forest City Ratner told the New York Times after a commission hearing on Monday.

In a Sept. 27 letter to the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency overseeing Ratner’s project, the planning commission called Atlantic Yards “a vibrant new mixed-use community.”

As it did with its recommendation for the modest size reduction in the overall project, the commission endorsed Forest City Ratner’s intention to keep the project’s spiritual centerpiece, the “Miss Brooklyn” tower at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, at 620 feet.

That was somewhat surprising, given that even project supporters like Borough President Markowitz have called for that building to be trimmed so it would not detract from the 512-foot Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower nearby.

Earlier this month, the Times reported that Atlantic Yards architect Frank Gehry “has objected to any changes in his design for Miss Brooklyn.”

Regina Myer, director of the Department of City Planning’s Brooklyn office, sided squrely with Ratner and Gehry as she briefed the 12 planning commissioners on Monday (a 13th commissioner, Dolly Williams, recused herself because she is a part-owner of Ratner’s New Jersey Nets).

“The undulating [design of Miss Brooklyn] is one of the great elements of this project,” said Myer, saying that reductions in three adjacent buildings would allow Miss Brooklyn to shine even brighter.

City planners have been working closely behind the scenes with Ratner, so it’s no surprise that the agency and the developer are on the same page [indeed, late Wednesday, Forest City Ratner put out a statement saying it had accepted the Planning Commission recommendations].

Critics say the Commission and the developer have merely made minor changes in the $4.2-billion arena, residential, office space and hotel project in a way that allows them to appear attentive to community concerns.

A statement issued Wednesday by Forest City Ratner Vice President Jim Stuckey did little to counter that impression.

“The City’s recommendation would allow us to respect the local community’s wishes for less density and shorter buildings near residential communities, while at the same time ensuring that we are able to build all of the 2,250 units of affordable housing,” Stuckey said.

During Monday’s hearing, several commissioners asked whether those taxpayer-subsidized units were sacrosanct, even if the Planning Commission’s reductions result in 382 fewer residential units. But Ratner this week reiterated his commitment to keeping that number fixed at 2,250.

The financing deal between the city and Forest City Ratner for those “affordable” units is still being negotiated, a spokeswoman for the city Economic Development Corporation told the Commission on Monday.

But one Planning commissioner, Kenneth Knuckles, questioned whether the below-market-rate rentals would provide a long-term benefit given that Ratner can convert them to market-rate units after the 30-year city subsidy runs out — following existing rent-stabilization laws, of course.

Knuckles seemed surprised that the developer is not being required to maintain the units’ affordability “in perpetuity,” he said.

The Empire State Development Corporation can ignore the Commission’s recommendation with a two-thirds vote.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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