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A partial court victory by opponents of Bruce Ratner’s Atlantic Yards project may end up doing the impossible: sinking the mega-development before it even gets off the ground.

This startling news is buried deep in court documents filed this week by the Empire State Development Corporation. The agency is appealing Justice Carol Edmead’s decision last week to remove an environmental review expert from the project because his prior work for Ratner “tainted” the process.

Since the ruling, that process has ground “to a screeching halt,” ESDC lawyer Douglas Kraus wrote in a motion requesting that the expert, David Paget, be allowed continue working on the project while his removal is appealed.

“There is a distinct possibility,” Kraus added, “that ESDC may not be able to find [a] substitute” for Paget.

That would be bad news for Forest City Ratner, whose vice president, Jim Stuckey, had said in court papers submitted earlier in the case that the company is hemorrhaging $4 million in carrying costs every month.

“[Further] delay would subject FCR to severe, irreparable harm,” Stuckey wrote in the affidavit. “These losses would be devastating … and could jeopardize the project.”

Taken together, the two affidavits give the impression that the opponents’ first of several expected legal challenges might make the Atlantic Yards as wobbly as the Knicks defense.

“Stuckey said any delay would jeopardize the project and now the ESDC is using the term ‘screeching halt,’” said Jeff Baker, lawyer for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, the lead plaintiff in the suit.

“That’s financial Armageddon for Ratner.”

Baker’s enthusiasm earned a swift and commensurate response from Forest City Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco.

“The opposition has stated that it intends to sue early and often,” he said. “Contrary to what they say, they are not interested in responsible development, jobs and housing. At no point, have they expressed even the slightest interest in any of the initiatives associated with this project.”

Despite its financial trouble, FCR intends next week to begin tearing down the first of six run-down buildings on the project site, DePlasco said.

An appeals judge refused this week to put a stay on Edmead’s ruling allowing those demolitions to go forward.

The first structure to come down will likely be the Underberg Building at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues — where Ratner hopes to someday build his 20,500-seat, Frank Gehry-designed home for the “Brooklyn” Nets.

The team was supposed to move to the borough in 2008, but that relocation has also been put off until 2010, the Newark Star-Ledger has reported.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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