The proposed site plan for Bruce Ratner’s central Brooklyn development looks like a saber, with the Nets’ basketball arena near the point, where Atlantic and Flatbush avenues intersect. The blade extends two blocks wide and half a mile long to the southwest, much of it made up of office and residential towers. But the sharp edge of the knife has a notch in it, a five-acre parcel that won’t be touched.
Much of that parcel is taken up by Newswalk, a former Daily News printing plant that developer Shaya Boymelgreen turned into condos three years ago. A lot of renters and business owners nearby wish they could stay put, too. But the Empire State Development Corporation, which will likely sponsor the arena, has already chosen Boymelgreen to develop another of its projects, a retail arcade in DUMBO. That, and his $1,000 contribution to the governor’s last campaign, may be why Boymelgreen’s building in central Brooklyn is being spared.
Ratner owns hardly any of the land he wants to build on. He won’t say whether he secured options to buy before he announced his plan in December. Without those options, he—or taxpayers—will have to pay higher prices now that the sellers know how badly he wants their property. Of course, the state can always seize the land under eminent domain, paying what it determines to be a fair price. No matter how much money he gets, Henry Weinstein says he would rather develop the warehouse he owns on Pacific Street instead of giving it up to Ratner. “All of the sacrifices we made over the past 30 years to restore life to this neighborhood will be for his profit,” Weinstein said.
The big players in this drama deny that Newswalk got any special treatment—even though the Brooklyn Papers, a chain of community newspapers, quoted a spokesman as suggesting that Boymelgreen would profit from the arena plan, though it’s unclear if he would be an investor or a contractor. (Boymelgreen’s office did not return repeated calls from the Voice.) Ratner spokesman Joe DePlasco said that since Newswalk was already residential, it fit into the arena plan, which includes residential space. Of course, many of the buildings slated to be razed are also residential. According to surveys taken by opponents, Ratner’s plan will displace about 350 people, along with a homeless shelter that has room for 400. Another 33 businesses with 235 employees will also have to move.
Ratner had numerous other reasons to let Newswalk stay. It would cost a fortune to buy back 140 condos that had just sold for six figures each. Forcing residents out would have won him that many new opponents. Boymelgreen, meanwhile, also benefits. He still has about 30 empty units. And an emerging big-time developer like Boymelgreen, who scaled his way from small private projects in the East Village to state-owned ones in DUMBO with the help of non-union labor, can in the future point to Newswalk as testimony of what he’s capable of.
But if Ratner could design around Newswalk, he could have spared other properties as well. “I’ve tried to figure out why they constructed their plan the way they did,” said Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development. Lander might support the plan, but only if it comes with stronger guarantees of jobs and affordable housing. “You could do substantial work without invoking eminent domain at all.”
One of the neighborhood groups opposing Ratner, Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, suggests that Ratner build on top of an adjacent mall he already owns, and which receives substantial government subsidies. But that’s not Ratner’s style, said Eric Reschke, one of the group’s members. “He’s going to do this whole project by taking land he does not own and without putting any of his money up for it.”
Ratner’s spokesman emphasized that the blueprint unveiled in December was a starting point. Many critics suspect that it intentionally over-reached, and that Ratner would settle for half. Already, Ratner is retrenching. Last week, Ratner executive Bruce Bender told Newsday that architect Frank Gehry would amend the plan to save some homes. Neighbors are waiting to hear which ones.