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Bruce Ratner: Powerman, the Eroica, and Atlantic Yards

(The author suggests that the following article be read thrice: First while accompanied by Ludwig van Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, “The Eroica,” then while listening to The Kinks, Lola versus Powerman and The Moneygoround; and lastly in deafening silence)

I – Allegro con brio

I know a man, he’s a powerful man

He’s got the people in his power

In the palm of his hand.†

On July 27th, New York’s once bitten, twice shy mayor wrapped the strong arm around the MTA, saying that postponing their decision to consider a late entry for the development rights over the Vanderbilt Yards was “no way to deal with the business community in this town.” This act turned what was previously assumed to be a bid process into a 45-day exclusive negotiation with the cash-light but longtime political favorite bidder, Forest City Ratner Corporation (FCRC). Although the authority did not technically award a bid to Forest City, there will be no further consideration of the rival Extell bid as Ratner sits in air-conditioned rooms with MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow during muggy August and early September in an attempt to turn a “probably” into a “yes.” Numerous phone calls to the MTA for further elucidation of this decision were not returned.

August: Thirty-one days where Parisians flee the City of Light en masse and the already addled brains of the general American populace switch off, melt, and boil away. Prospect Heights isn’t in Paris, and isn’t going to be any time soon, but hardly a fresh sound was heard in the stale, humid air about the Atlantic Yards. Ah, but if every month could inattentively proceed behind closed doors for “stealth mogul” Bruce Ratner.

“We were of course very pleased that the MTA selected FCRC to enter into negotiations,” says Forest City spokesman Joe DePlasco. Of course. He was more curt about their initial bid, which Chairman Kalikow noted “frankly was not as high” as the MTA expected and was lower in its cash offer of $50 million than either Extell’s bid or the MTA’s assessment of $214 million.

“Actually, how do you know what market value is?” DePlasco chides when asked why the bid was low. Perhaps inadvertent, the FCRC spokesman makes a compelling point: Any college economics major can tell you that if a seller is only willing to speak with one buyer, technically there is no market.

DePlasco stands by the original Ratner bid for the Yards, but acknowledges that, “the MTA made it clear they want more money.”

September 10th will mark the conclusion of the Forest City/MTA private honeymoon. Although she “hopes the MTA will conclude that Extell’s bid is higher and that their project is better for the city and state,” City Councilwoman Letitia James, an opponent of the Forest City proposal which would be built in her district, notes: “The fix is in.” She believes “unfortunately, politics will likely rule the day and [the MTA] will award [the Vanderbilt Yards] to one of their preferred developers, Forest City Ratner,” in September.

We know from [Beethoven pupil Ferdinand] Ries that Beethoven’s new symphony was to be dedicated to Bonaparte, the liberator who was bringing hope to an oppressed Europe, and it was that Napoleon, rather than the warrior, whom Beethoven wished to honor.‡

II – Marcia funebre: Adagio assai

He started at the bottom and he worked his way up

Now he’s never going to stop

Until he reaches the top.†

In February of 2005, Forest City announced with much excitement the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the Atlantic Yards. The same day a second MOU was signed by Empire State Development Corp. (ESDC) Chief Charles Gargano, Deputy Mayor Daniel Doctoroff, New York City Economic Development Corporation President Andrew Alper and Bruce Ratner, and this MOU was not accorded the same hoopla. In fact it was not distributed to the press for release. Uncovered in a Freedom of Information Act request by Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), this document allows Forest City to redevelop the area where the Atlantic Center Mall is located, as well as what is known as Site Five, where at present a P.C. Richards & Son's and a Modell’s store are located.

When initially asked about the document, Joe DePlasco responds: “I assume you are talking about Site Five. Had you followed all of the presentations, you would know that it has been discussed extensively.” Although this is the case, when an entire project is predicated on the seizing and demolition of others’ property for its completion, the expansion of the proposal to a plot the developer already mostly owns (P.C. Richards owns the property on which their store sits) does not imply that a document for its disposition yet exists.

Candace Carponter of DDDB expresses concern about the MOU’s existence. “We’re concerned primarily because it wasn’t disclosed and why it was not disclosed,” she explains. With the request for information, the group was actually looking to find out how “over the past many years the designated developer [of the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area] became Ratner.” Other than the radar-skirting MOU, the search was “a non-responsive response,” she notes.

“To an extent there is a mea culpa,” DePlasco concedes, “it is that Site Five is not part of the Atlantic Yards project. Since it was not part of Atlantic Yards, [the MOU] was not released at that time.” Not addressed is whether another tower can be expected where the Atlantic Center Mall now sits.

Ries reported that it was he who first brought the news to Beethoven of Napoleon’s self-proclamation as Emperor. Beethoven exploded with rage: “So, he is nothing but an ordinary mortal! He will trample all the rights of men under foot, to indulge his ambition, and become a greater tyrant than anyone!” Whereupon the composer tore the dedicatory page.‡

III – Scherzo: Allegro vivace

It’s the same old story, it’s the same old dream

It’s power man, power man, and all that it can bring.†

The controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. The City of New London, affirming states’ rights to seize property for private development that would increase tax revenues, caused a virtual deluge of proposed laws nationwide from state legislatures looking to restrict its use for such ends. New York has been no different. In Albany, a number of different bills are being introduced that range from limiting or setting guidelines for the use of eminent domain in private projects to disallowing it altogether. In New York City, Councilwoman Letitia James introduced a bill to prohibit contribution of city money to development projects that utilize eminent domain.

With 16 sponsors already, James is “still trying to lobby my colleagues to get to that magic number” of 26 votes that would allow the bill’s passage. One key supporter the councilwoman is lobbying is Speaker Gifford Miller, a Democratic candidate for mayor. “He has indicated that he supports the notion,” the councilwoman says. Miller spokesman Jonathan Moody would not go further than to state that the Speaker “is not a sponsor of the bill.”

Should Miller’s support materialize, James is especially hopeful. “It’s possible we can do this before the end of the year,” she notes, adding: “We’re having a session after the primary.” Even if the bill passes, the mayor can still veto it, which is a strong possibility.

Contrary to widely held belief, eminent domain may still play a viable part in whether Ratner’s Atlantic Yards is built. This is aside from the long shadow the law has already cast on homeowners who stood in the project’s way during the developer’s earlier negotiations.

By Develop Don’t Destroy’s estimate, there are twenty properties that are not under the control of Forest City. Passage of any of the bills on the state level or James’ move to close the city’s coffers could stifle the Atlantic Yards, if not stop it altogether.

Disillusioned and burning with hatred, Beethoven then reinscribed the dedication, which now reads, “Heroic Symphony—Composed to celebrate the memory of a great man and dedicated to His Serene Highness, Prince Lobkowitz.”‡

IV – Finale: Allegro molto

If you want your money, you better stand in line

‘Cos you’ll only end up picking up nickels and dimes.

You call him names and he sits and grins

‘Cos everybody else is just a sucker to him.†

In 1817, Beethoven was dining with the poet Christian Kuffner, who asked him which of his symphonies (the Ninth was not yet written) was his favorite. “Eh! Eh! Why, the Eroica.” Kuffner, somewhat surprised, remarked, “I should have guessed the C Minor.” “No,” Beethoven replied, “the Eroica.”‡

“This process,” notes Forest City spokesman Joe DePlasco of their Atlantic Yards proposal, “has been more open and has taken place with more outreach than any project in this city.” Nonetheless, Bruce Ratner is a power man with friends willing to bend and smooth its route to ensure its passage. When documents that add scope to a project are quietly filed—that is not openness. When political pressure is exerted to ensure a continuation of favored status, official or not, in a supposedly open bid process by a public agency—that is not outreach.

Perhaps we are all just suckers to Bruce Ratner, but the lashes are bouncing back against eminent domain use for private development. With legislation being introduced on the city and state level to curb the practice upon which power men like Ratner have come to rely, an unstoppable force in the August heat could meet its Waterloo by winter.

†All lyrics Ray Davies “Powerman”, The Kinks, Lola versus Powerman and The Moneygoround, Warner Bros. Records, Copyright 1970.

‡All Liner notes to Ludwig van Beethoven, “Eroica”, Great Performances No. 21, CBS Records, Copyright 1981.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2005

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