Earplugs, Anyone? Selling In Atlantic Yards’ Shadow

Before the jackhammers, the bulldozers, the hoe rams and the cranes brought the borough’s largest real-estate venture to his Brooklyn neighborhood, Jacob Septimus wanted out. And so, last August, he put on the market for $1.5 million the 2,000-square-foot three-bedroom that he and his wife had bought just five years earlier.

They dropped the price once and then finally, this week, closed on it—for “a little over” $1.3 million—and moved out of earshot of Atlantic Yards.

“I waited as long as possible,” said the scruffy, leather-jacketed Mr. Septimus, 34, a filmmaker. (He recently finished a documentary, BIKE, about hard-core bicyclists.) “I didn’t want to leave. I was very happy there, but at the same time, I’m a realist. I have a lot of sympathy for the people trying to fight it, but I saw it was a great game, and there wasn’t anything to do except vote with your feet.”

Mr. Septimus lived in Newswalk, a 10-story former Daily News printing plant that’s been converted into condominiums over the past eight years. It will essentially be surrounded on three sides by the 190- to 511-foot-tall towers of Atlantic Yards, the eight-million-square-foot project planned for Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. While the other warehouses and apartment buildings—including two that had also been converted into condos—will be demolished, developer Bruce Ratner spared Newswalk and some adjacent rowhouses, in a prudent move that lowers his cost of having to buy out the residents.

“Ratner is literally going to build right outside what was my window,” Mr. Septimus said. “He is basically going to block the light of all of our sunsets. We didn’t want to live with that. We didn’t want to live with that construction.”

A Newswalk board member counts nine residents of the building who have moved in the past year because of Atlantic Yards, including Mr. Septimus. They and other property owners nearby haven’t exactly lost money; the robust, if sputtering, real-estate sales market has made sure of that. (Mr. Septimus more than doubled the $500,000 he paid.) Some people even believe that the project will be good for the neighborhood in the long run.

But sellers and brokers are warning that the prospect of 10-plus years of construction will complicate future sales, if it isn’t doing so already.

Jan Lattey, a neighbor, put a brownstone that she bought 24 years ago around the corner from Newswalk on the market in January 2006. It just sold in December; she blames the fact that it took so long—and that it didn’t fetch the $1.5 million asking price—on the imminent project.

“A lot of people were very, very hesitant because of what is going to happen across the street,” said Ms. Lattey, who is retiring and moving to a condo in nearby Park Slope. “They didn’t want to live with construction for 14 years.”

With December’s approval by the state Public Authorities Control Board neatly in hand, Mr. Ratner’s company, Forest City Ratner, can begin demolishing the buildings that it owns as soon as it receives permits. To go further and seize another 22 properties through eminent domain to complete the planned footprint, Mr. Ratner must contend with a federal lawsuit filed by landowners and tenants.

Once—or if—he prevails, Forest City would start with the environmental remediation of the eastern part of the 22-acre site, closest to Flatbush Avenue, where the Nets basketball arena will go, and prepare to move the Long Island Rail Road train yard further east.

Then, as the arena, the train yard and five other commercial and residential buildings get underway late next year, as many as 470 trucks will make deliveries each day during the peak period, in winter 2009, according to the final environmental-impact statement issued in November. An average of once or twice a week, workers would be on the job until 11 p.m. For 10 months, one of the lanes of Atlantic Avenue would shut down. Side streets would close for longer periods, some of them forever. The levels of fine particulate matter—soot and dust—would exceed the threshold level that the Environmental Protection Agency considers dangerous to human health along two different stretches around the construction site (including down the street from Newswalk) for year-long periods.

And the equipment would be noisy enough that, even with various technological (electric, not diesel) and geographic (move them farther away) mitigations, Forest City is planning on buying and installing air conditioners or double-pane windows for nearby residents in sensitive spots—a move that even ur-booster Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, told the state economic-development agency “is not a solution for these problems, only a way to mask them while residents are inside their homes.”

It’s a wonder, given all of that particulate matter—and the draft and final environmental-impact statements and analyses and appendices—that anybody is buying anything at all anywhere near Atlantic Avenue. And yet they are.

Nalani Clark, the co-principal broker and co-owner of the brokerage Brooklyn Properties, said her agency just set the neighborhood’s record for a brownstone sale about two and a half blocks away. William Ross, the executive director of sales for Halstead Brooklyn, said that his brokerage just sold four large apartments on Pacific Street for about $800 a square foot right across the street from a couple of commercial buildings that Mr. Ratner has planned.

“Those are family-sized units,” Mr. Ross told The Observer. “Those are buyers who are going to be there for a long while. By the time they are sold again, the arena will be finished and the neighborhood will have improved.

“If someone wants to buy there and sell in a year or two years,” he added, “they might be in trouble for all of the construction; but if you are planning on staying for five or six years, by the time you are ready to move, the construction will be complete.”

Meanwhile, on the north (read: shady) side of Atlantic Yards, the Dermot Company is finishing up its conversion of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building, the once and (given a last-minute concession by Forest City) future tallest building in Brooklyn, at 512 feet. The Dermot Company has put about 35 percent of its 189 condominiums under contract since opening its sales office last July—right when the draft environmental-impact statement came out with images of a row of steel-and-glass buildings that would rise just 600 feet away from the former bank’s 78-year-old terrazzo lobby.

“More than anything, that’s what people are coming in and looking at: what sort of views they will have,” Dermot principal Andrew MacArthur said. “One of the things we wanted when we bought the building was to have great views in every direction. We knew about the project then, and one of the things we considered was what sort of impact [Atlantic Yards] would have, and we decided it would have a very limited one.”

Mr. MacArthur said that Atlantic Yards would be fully visible from just one out of four lines of apartments, and that those units had been selling just as quickly as any others—although, on second thought, maybe that wasn’t quickly enough.

“The way the building was laid out, we had tight, efficient units on that end, so it is fair to say that people are hesitating when it comes to that line,” he said. “Those are tight, efficient two-bedroom units which we thought we would have sold more of.”

Forest City Ratner wouldn’t comment for this story, but the final environmental-impact statement acknowledges: “Construction traffic and noise would change the quiet character of Dean Street and Pacific Street in the immediate vicinity of the project site.” As for longer-range impacts, the analysis, conducted by a private firm on behalf of the Empire State Development Corporation, the state agency that has both promoted and overseen the project’s creation, concluded that the project—some 6,430 rental and condo apartments, the basketball arena and 336,000 square feet of office space—would “not substantially affect residential property values in areas with at-risk population for several reasons.”

Opponents have long argued the opposite: that Atlantic Yards will bring an influx of affluence into the mixed-income neighborhood because of its 3,980 market-rate apartments and another 900 or so aimed at households earning more than the region’s median income.

What is more, the opponents in the eminent-domain lawsuit are using the strong sales at Newswalk and other nearby places as arguments against why a massive, planned, subsidized urban-renewal project is necessary to eliminate blight when, next-door, buyers are shelling out $800 or even $1,000 a square foot.

In its legal response, filed in mid-December, the ESDC argued that the open rail yard, owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has blighted the adjacent three blocks (minus the part where Newswalk stands, apparently) to such a hopeless extent that eminent domain is justified, because “all prior plans to remediate the blight caused by this gaping hole in the Brooklyn landscape have fallen through.”

Brokers tend to agree that decking over the train yards will do only good for the neighborhood—but beyond that, they are reluctant to take a position, because their clients are as divided about the project as the rest of the public. After all, Mr. Ratner isn’t merely bringing lots of people and lots of traffic—and, his supporters say, lots of jobs—to central Brooklyn. He is bringing a little Madison Square Garden, complete with 150-foot animated signs, to a neighborhood that is warming up to boutiques that sell $4 handmade greeting cards.

“It is one of those things that is so hard to predict in the long term, frankly,” said Mr. MacArthur, the developer of One Hanson Place, the former Williamsburgh Bank tower. “I would like to stay out of saying whether things are going in a positive or a negative [direction]. It’s such a highly charged issue that we have nothing to gain from having an opinion.”

Meanwhile, Halstead’s Mr. Ross has an idea for how to get potential buyers into the spirit, especially when that jackhammer goes off across the street right during your open house: throw in a pair of season tickets to the Nets.

Or you could just buy them some earplugs.

Earplugs, Anyone? Selling  In Atlantic Yards’ Shadow