Forest City Ratner had once imagined that, by now, the Atlantic Yards site in central Brooklyn would be humming with construction activity. Contractors would be tearing up streets to upgrade utilities, moving train tracks for the Long Island Rail Road and digging the foundations for the basketball arena and nearby buildings. Some 588 workers would show up each day and 410 trucks would carry debris and material back and forth, according to the final environmental impact statement published last November.
But lawsuits, a construction accident, and other factors have delayed the pace of construction by two to nine months. The delays are having a number of contradictory repercussions, potentially costing the developer millions of dollars a month and also bolstering the argument that the area is blighted and in need of the dire intervention that the Atlantic Yards project—with its 16 high rises, basketball arena, 6,430 apartments and retail and office space—represents.
While never the image of manicured suburbia, the rectangular site emanating east and south from the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues had been slowly gentrifying before Atlantic Yards was announced four years ago. Three industrial buildings had been converted into condominiums, giving the impression of a half-finished landscape.
Now, the area looks half-begun. Trees grow in the middle of vacant lots where functioning businesses once stood—and, in other cases, long-abandoned warehouses were falling apart. Sidewalk sheds have gone up and equipment has been hauled into place, only to be abandoned when construction is suddenly halted.
Occasionally, an occupant of Newswalk, a former printing plant for the Daily News that has been converted into condominiums, walks by with a dog. It is one of a handful of buildings that will be spared.
“I’m not looking forward to being in a construction zone, but at this point, I just want them to get on with it,” said Cathy Felgar. “I don’t think any of the lawsuits will have any effect.”
Ms. Felgar, 41, moved into Newswalk almost five years ago, just before rumors of Atlantic Yards first surfaced. “I think it’s a total scam, but it’s nothing new in terms of New York real estate,” she said.
The population in the footprint has decreased from about 400 to about 50 since the project was announced, according to Daniel Goldstein, spokesman for the opposition group Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. Still, most of that exodus occurred early on, as Forest City began to buy people out. Newswalk has actually seen a population increase as units get finished and sold. One resident who supports Atlantic Yards can’t tell much of a difference from when he moved in three years ago.
“What are we saving?” asked Tom McKay, 47, gesturing with his arm at the three-block trench of a rail yard and a couple of boarded-up warehouses behind it. “Take a hard look around.”
Forest City Ratner states that it still intends to complete the Frank Gehry–designed arena in time for the opening of the 2009-2010 basketball season, which was the plan when the state’s Public Authorities Control Board approved the development last December. When first announced in 2003, Forest City Ratner said that the Nets, which the company would eventually purchase, would begin playing in Brooklyn in 2006.
“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.
On Aug. 30, the city’s Department of Buildings imposed a stop-work order on an adjacent parcel after finding that there were no approved plans for the work and there was no permit posted, according to online records.
Forest City had also, according to last year’s schedule, planned to have closed the Carlton Avenue bridge last fall for nine months, but it has yet to do so. Nor has the developer vacated a pair of buildings on the western edge of the site that houses P.C. Richard & Son and Modell’s Sporting Goods, which Forest City was supposed to have demolished a month or two ago.
In April, the parapet of a former bakery collapsed onto the sidewalk while workers were preparing the building for demolition. While no one was injured, cars on the street were damaged and work was temporarily halted. The Department of Buildings said it would subject Forest City to more rigorous scrutiny.
Forest City has even fallen behind a schedule it put out as recently as last April, which anticipated that demolition on 15 buildings it owned would have begun by mid- to late June. Of those named, only six have been leveled, according to Mr. Goldstein, and demolition work has begun on just two others.
“Why they won’t follow their own schedule is a mystery,” said Mr. Goldstein, who is active in both lawsuits and also lives in the footprint. “There may be some buildings they may feel that they want to wait on in case they lose the lawsuits, so they would like to have the buildings standing. Who knows? I would think they would want to bring everything down as fast as they can.”
Mr. Goldstein says that should his side lose the appeals court case, it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that all in all, the legal battles will tie up the project for years. The group’s war chest, he said is “strong,” although he would not give a precise amount. Develop Don’t Destroy is holding another walk-a-thon next month. While it is not releasing targets, last year’s event raised about $96,000, Mr. Goldstein said.
The delays, while creating a less pleasant place to live, are also giving opponents more time to make their case and develop alternatives, one of which they plan to unveil later this month.
“I think it is good for the opponents to have these delays,” said Ron Shiffman, a former city planning commissioner and a member of Develop Don’t Destroy’s advisory board. “We have time to raise consciousness for people in decision-making positions. It gives us time to work on a proper way of developing the rail yards.
“This is a project that will be there for a century or more. For us to have rushed into that with a plan that was totally inappropriate in terms of scale and architecture would be a serious mistake.”