Let’s Do the Time Warp Again: Atlantic Yards as Interpretive Dance


Photo Simulation Copyright 2006 Jonathan Barkey

Already confusing because of its opaque public costs and shady financing, this week the perplexing Atlantic Yards proposal for downtown Brooklyn revealed another bizarre element: an evolving completion timeline.

The latest knot was uncombed on Monday by the meticulous blogger Norman Oder, author of the must-read Atlantic Yards Report. He was the first to post that the Empire State Development Corporation had only recently uploaded to its Atlantic Yards Web site a behemoth-sized State Funding Agreement between New York and developer Forest City Ratner that was signed in September 2007. The agreement, uploaded in 37 parts as a scan of the original 400-plus page document, appeared on the Web site on Friday, the same day that The New York Times ran a front-page story describing the financial problems facing the $4 billion, 22-acre project in the slumping economy.

Yesterday, ESDC spokesperson Warner Johnston confirmed in a telephone call that the funding agreement was signed in September and posted on Friday, in response to numerous inquires from reporters.

According to Oder, whose hairy discovery was also announced in a press release by the Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn group, the newly disclosed funding agreement would allow six-plus years for Forest City Ratner to build the arena portion of the project, now estimated to cost $950 million instead of the original $600 million range projection, and more than 12 years to build the rest of Phase 1, which includes five towering skyscrapers. Moreover, the funding agreement provides no established timeline to build the remaining 11 skyscrapers of Phase 2, which are supposed to account for the bulk of the proposed affordable housing. And the agreement even ventures a scenario of project abandonment in which far less housing and open space would be built.

At that point, could it even be considered the same project?

In a typical twist, the details of the state funding agreement contrast with the General Project Plan approved by the ESDC in December 2006. That plan said that Phase 1 of the project was expected to be completed by 2010, and that Phase 2 was anticipated to be completed by 2016.

The existence of the funding agreement, while not discussed in the Times article, seems to provide a rationale for the Teflon-like final words of Forest City Ratner head Bruce Ratner, who told reporter Charles Bagli that, “Good things sometimes take a long time.”

However, exactly how long Ratner can take remains unclear because of a curious portion of the funding agreement that discusses an “effective date” of December 19, 2009. According to this detail, all litigation and property condemnation must be completed by that time, otherwise Forest City Ratner will have to take “reasonable steps” to pursue the project in order to prevent it from being considered abandoned and money returned to ESDC.
What might happen if Atlantic Yards opponents, currently in the appeals process of two lawsuits concerning the environmental impact of the project and its use of eminent domain, manage to outlast the December 2009 effective date?

As far as ESDC is concerned, the litigation has already been completed.

“Essentially, that section of the funding agreement was designed for litigation that was on the table at the time,” said ESDC’s Johnston yesterday. “That litigation was dismissed.”

Or is that open to interpretation, too?