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May 16, 2009

Atlantic Yards Report: Media Attention Deficiency

Atlantic Yards Report

Media coverage, or, rather, the lack of it, has had a significant effect on the Atlantic Yards fight. Norman Oder illustrates in this morning's entries.

Reading the dailies on the eminent domain case: questions about groundbreaking, appeal timing, Gehry's role

When Atlantic Yards news breaks, the media outlets have a hard time being accurate, because none of them cover this story on an ongoing basis. Norman Oder surveys coverage in light of yesterday's ruling on the State eminent domain case.

Answers to these questions, and more, are covered.

OK, so when does Bruce Ratner promise a groundbreaking for the Atlantic Yards arena? This summer, according to the New York Daily News; in September (which could be this summer), according to the New York Post; or in October, according to the New York Times. This year, according to an official statement.(available on the Barclays Center site but not yet the Atlantic Yards site).

Why does it matter? First, it suggests that Ratner can't get his story straight. Second, it assumes a certain time frame for a decision regarding an appeal of the eminent domain case announced yesterday.

Perhaps most importantly, it allows Ratner, at least for now, to continue to promise that the arena would open for the 2011-2012 season. I think that's highly unlikely, because Ratner already suggested the arena would take 30 months to build, and the environmental review said 32 months, but it's remotely possible that a stripped-down design could be completed faster.

The state of legal battle:

Plaintiffs' attorney Matt Brinckerhoff left open the possibility that current legal cases could be cleared by the fall: "At a minimum, if we lose every single thing imaginable, it's still going to take them four to six months," he told the Daily News. That would then lead to the effort to exercise eminent domain by the Empire State Development Corporation.

But if the eminent domain case appeal is heard, it could slow things down for another two years. That's important, because Forest City Ratner has until the end of the year to see tax-exempt bonds issued to fund arena construction, a savings of well over $100 million.

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What about the pending request for an appeal in the case challenging the AY environmental review? The Post reports: There is also a suit pending challenging whether the state conducted a proper environmental review before approving Atlantic Yards, but Ratner's staff said it feels construction could still begin while that case remains under appeal. Opponents, however, said they disagree.

Perhaps construction work might be able to go forward, but would bonds be approved (via a local development corporation set up by the Empire State Development Corporation) before that case was cleared? If that case goes forward and is successful, a revised environmental impact statement might be required, so the ESDC might want to wait until the case is resolved.

Wherefore art thou, Gehry?

So, is Frank Gehry still on the project? According to the Post: Ratner said a revised arena plan would be released at a later date and promised it would still be a Gehry-design that's top-notch.

According to the Times: He has also said he wants to pare the projected $1 billion cost of the arena by about $200 million. He said he would decide within 60 days whether to keep the original design, by the architect Frank Gehry, or use another.

Gehry's participation is important, because the arena has been sold to sponsors as a Frank Gehry arena. Should Gehry no longer be involved, presumably they would be able to renegotiate their level of support. I predict that some hybrid will emerge, with Gehry's name--if not his and his firm's ongoing participation--attached to the arena.

Arena costs and why you should care:

The price tag had previously been stated at $950 million. Trimming $200 million would bring it to $750 million. Previously, the Times had reported that Ratner wanted to cut the price tag in half, and in February I expressed skepticism, pointing out that an arena in Orlando, where construction costs are much lower, has a $480 million price tag.

The cost is important because, the higher the price tag, the larger the amount of PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) and the larger amount of foregone property taxes. And that means that the arena site would have to be assessed--in echoes of the Yankee Stadium controversy--so the value is high enough to generate those PILOTs. Stay tuned for that controversy to emerge.

Who's planning to build what?

The Forest City Ratner press release stated: FCRC expects to start at least one residential building during the first phase of construction.

Only one? There initially were supposed to be four buildings around the arena, and another building at Site 5. The City Funding Agreement suggests that the developer can meet obligations without penalty by building three towers within 12 years after the exercise of eminent domain.


The Lopez-Sander dust-up, Ratner lobbying, and the Weinstein case: why so little coverage?

Have you been reading a lot lately about how Vito Lopez was behind pushing out MTA head Lee Sander or how Forest City Ratner spent enormous sums lobbying for it's standstill project or what the court decision for Henry Weinstein means for the proposed Atlantic Yards project? Probably not, because New York papers are largely ignoring these stories.

"Society doesn’t need newspapers," wrote Clay Shirky recently. "What we need is journalism."

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While not everyone agrees--newspapers, at their best, offer a menu of coverage a reader might not seek out--Shirky's argument got a boost this week..

That's because the New York Times and New York Post ignored the New York Daily News's scoop that Brooklyn Democratic leader Vito Lopez may have been behind the ouster of generally-respected Metropolitan Transportation Authority Executive Director Elliott (Lee) Sander.

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And what about Forest City Ratner's lobbying? It didn't quite make the Top Ten last year in New York state, but the developer did have the third-largest contract, which is notable, given that no construction proceeded but the developer surely was seeking indirect subsidies (or even direct ones).

That news didn't make it into last week's editions of the Brooklyn Paper or the Courier-Life chain, but that wasn't surprising, given that the news broke at or after those newspapers' deadlines.

What about this week? Nope.

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An appellate court's decisions in favor of Atlantic Yards footprint landowner Henry Weinstein, who charged that his tenant, developer Shaya Boymelgreen, had improperly transferred a lease (to a building and parking lot) to Forest City Ratner, got a very brief article in the Courier-Life and hasn't yet been covered in the Brooklyn Paper.

Posted by steve at May 16, 2009 8:39 AM