Atlantic Yards: The Suspense Builds

“Work has been ongoing on the site since we first announced in April,” spokesman Joe De Plasco said in an e-mail. “We anticipate opening the arena in time for the 09-10 season … not much else we can say.”

Mr. De Plasco did not respond to follow-up questions. A spokesman for the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency overseeing the project, said that it was not worried about the schedule. “We’re working with Forest City Ratner to achieve the goal of opening the arena by the 2009 season,” the spokesman, Errol Cockfield, said in an e-mail.

 

IT IS CLEAR, HOWEVER, THAT delays are a sensitive topic. In February, Laurie Olin, the landscape architect who is working on the project’s design with Frank Gehry, told The Observer that it will take 15 to 20 years to complete Atlantic Yards rather than 10 years as Forest City had proclaimed.

After that comment was used by plaintiffs in a lawsuit, James P. Stuckey, the Forest City executive who was in charge of the project (he has since left the company), curtly said in an affidavit, “Mr. Olin is not privy to the relevant information regarding construction of the project and does not have authority to speak on behalf of [Forest City].”

Forest City CEO Bruce Ratner has good reason to insist that he will stick to his schedule. Each month of delay postpones the delivery of the various benefits—jobs, affordable housing and a professional basketball team to restore the borough’s supposedly injured pride—that helped bring the project political support from former Governor George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a raft of others.

At the same time, Mr. Ratner’s financial backers cannot like the idea of foregone profits. Mr. Stuckey, in another affidavit, said that each month of delay would cost the company $4.15 million in construction inflation and carrying costs, while the Nets, which are largely owned by Forest City, would incur $35 million in operating losses if its move to Brooklyn was delayed another year. (The Nets expect to make much more money than they do now in New Jersey.)

Mr. Stuckey called the construction schedule “intricate” and said that “even a short delay could jeopardize the arena’s availability for an entire season.” He went on to assert that a delay “could even jeopardize the project.” Journalist Norman Oder first reported on the affidavit in his blog, Atlantic Yards Report, last April, and has repeatedly questioned Forest City’s ability to complete all phases of the work by 2016.

It is hard to accept Mr. Stuckey’s affidavit on face value (he gave it to counter a motion to freeze demolitions entirely). In the big scheme of things, $4 million a month, or even $35 million a year, must seem like pinpricks. Forest City is planning to spend $4.2 billion on Atlantic Yards, with some $305 million pledged from the city and state so far. A little noticed clause in the project plan approved by the state last year states that “additional fundings shall be made … provided that at no time will the costs reimbursed to [Forest City] by the city and state, in the aggregate, exceed 50 percent of the total costs. …”

The state and city would, however, have to agree to increase their contributions to the project. Mr. Cockfield, the spokesman for ESDC, said, “As far as the state goes we don’t contemplate reimbursing any more than $100 million for infrastructure.”

One cause for the delays is a lawsuit, filed by 13 tenants, homeowners and businesses in the footprint who are resisting the state’s use of eminent domain. A federal judge rejected the case in June but an appeals court will give it a hearing Oct. 9. Another lawsuit is challenging the process by which the state approved the project.

But even outside of those properties, Forest City has proceeded more slowly than planned. The company has not closed on a $100 million deal to lease the 8-acre Long Island Rail Yard from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but has been working instead under a license agreement. (M.T.A. spokesman Jeremy Soffin said the deal should close at the end of this year or in the beginning of 2008.) While contractors have taken the first step to construct a temporary rail yard on the eastern end of the site—a precondition for work on the arena, where trains are currently stored—that work was supposed to be completed by the middle of August, according to the schedule from last year.